ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Sokhan Prak is coordinating a basketball tournament.
BY BRIDGET TURCOTTE
LYNN — Sokhan Prak spent time in a juvenile detention center, was stabbed and shot by a rival posse before he escaped gang involvement.
Today, he’s a leader with Straight Ahead Ministries, helping to transform at-risk youth through faith. His mission is to provide teens with the support they need to avoid the gang life. Born in Lynn and raised by a single mother, Prak said he was brought up in a culture different than the one he was exposed to once he started going to school.
“My mother was from a culture that had Eastern values versus Western society values,” Prak said. “We grew up with a village mentality where we were growing up in an individualist society. That was a struggle for me. It was kind of a culture shock.”
Seeking a sense of community and support, he thought he had found what he was looking for in a gang.
“I felt like gangs protected me,” Prak said. “We ate together, we shared something as a community. They fed me when I was hungry. Those are the things I needed.”
He didn’t realize how wrong the violence and drug dealing that came along with it was until after he was detained in a juvenile detention center in Boston at 14, he said. While he was there, he attended church and was mentored by Straight Ahead Ministries.
“I was still involved with gangs, but now I had a different perspective on life,” Prak said. “Now I knew that the stuff I was doing was bad. Before I didn’t have a conscience. I didn’t feel bad about it. I realized the stuff that I’m doing is not good.”
He soon became a peer leader with Straight Ahead. At 16, he was ambushed and stabbed by a rival gang member while walking to his pastor’s office, he said. By 20, he had been shot. It wasn’t until then that he admitted he couldn’t have it both ways.
“I said ‘I can’t play two sides of the coin,” Prak said. “I have to completely disconnect or go fully into it. So I decided to fully disconnect.”
A year later, he became an outreach worker for Straight Ahead, where he supported peers between 17 and 24 with a criminal record. Prak said he would arrive at court hearings, help defendants return to school, get their GED and pursue college.
“They weren’t born bad,” Prak said. “Somewhere along the line they got influenced by the streets. They didn’t really have a role model or anybody to teach them about the important things in life. I thought ‘what if I went through these situations just so I can better help my community. What if I broke out of it to help my community. I wanted to be that somebody that I didn’t have growing up.”
Today, he oversees programs for Straight Ahead and operates the silkscreen, manufacturing T-shirts. Prak has planned a basketball tournament for high-risk youth to spend a day having fun and calling an event their own, he said.
The tournament will be held at the basketball courts at Breed Park on O’Callaghan Way on July 23 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Prak estimates that costs associated with food, referees, jerseys, a police detail and awards will total $2,750. Youth between the ages of 15 to 24 can play in the tournament for free.
“We really don’t have anything in the city that really gives these guys something that they can call their own,” Prak said. “It will be a fun day for them. Outreach workers will be reaching out to guys in the community who have been in trouble. They can start building a relationship with them and get to know them.”
Robert Connolly, a Straight Ahead volunteer, calls Prak a hero.
“With the help of the community, Sokhan was accepted, mentored, pushed and encouraged,” Connolly said in an email. “He is now a graduate of North Shore Community College, with aspirations of pursuing a (degree) in business at Salem State University. He is a leader in the same organizations that opened opportunities to him. He is a leader in the community. He is my friend.”
Bridget Turcotte can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.