Looking at his life, Gonzalo Duran-Chaparro can see a distinct fork in the road.

Looking at his life, Gonzalo Duran-Chaparro can see a distinct fork in the road.

The 24-year-old Southern Oregon University student and Medford resident was faced with a choice as a teenager — head deeper into gang activity or turn his life around.

"I was just hanging out with a bad crowd of people," he remembered. "I was starting to drift away."

In sixth grade, he got in trouble for drugs. By seventh grade, he mostly avoided school but never committed himself fully to a gang.

Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, saw the path Duran-Chaparro was headed down and reached out to the boy. Duran-Chaparro's parents, who came to the U.S. looking for a better life, worked hard and struggled for their family.

"I started realizing that these two people, who loved me so much, sacrificed so much to bring me and my family here," Duran-Chaparro said. "That was kind of like the turning point for me, that somebody would sacrifice themselves for me, and here I am, B.S.-ing around."

With Kids Unlimited's help, Duran-Chaparro's grades improved and he got involved in basketball, though he still struggled through his teens.

His brother, though, dropped out of high school. "He hit rock bottom," Duran-Chaparro said. Eventually his brother turned his life around and is working for a high-tech chemical company. "He's doing well now and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah," he said.

Some of his old friends who got more involved in gangs have been in and out of prison.

His sister, who had her own struggles, is now attending the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Duran-Chaparro, who is worried about increasing gang activity in the valley, is working for a local plumbing company while he goes to school, majoring in business, accounting and financial investments.

Cole said Duran-Chaparro's ability to change his behavior over time shows how children can be steered away from gangs.

"Dealing with the gang issue is about our commitment to education," Cole said.

Once youths join a gang, they usually don't stay in school, he said.

That's why schools, organizations and the community need to work together to get these children involved in something else during their critical teenage years, Cole said.

Some early predictors of a student falling into a gang is lack of interest in school and a lack of participation in extracurricular activities.

"These are kids who are not connected or don't have a sense of belonging," Cole said.

Many local youths have parents who don't speak English and fell behind in their studies at an early age, making them feel alienated.

Cole said he's seen kids in third grade who already are not tuned into education.

Poverty is a good predictor of someone who could be vulnerable to gangs, he said. "You don't see affluent kids in gangs."

Cole said children need to get involved in education at an early age, but also need to get involved in music, art, dance, theater, sports or some other extracurricular activity.

"They need to build an identity — that is the core thing," he said. "If they have no identity, they don't see themselves capable of becoming an artist or a dancer, or anything else."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.