Peer-to-peer program keeps Cambodian teens on track

September 15, 2012

Kevin Keo was 17 when he walked to the microphone and urged the Long Beach, Calif., City Council to provide quality housing for low-income families. He was polite, calm and persuasive.

The logo on his polo shirt gave him away.

Keo, now one year older, is a member of EM3, a leadership-formation organization for boys and young men at St. Mary Medical Center in the heart of the Cambodia Town community in Long Beach. EM3, formally known as Educated Men with Meaningful Messages, is one of the programs run by Families in Good Health, a community-outreach service of St. Mary, a member of Dignity Health. Now in its 16th year, EM3 has obtained grants from the state of California, universities and foundations.

EM3 trains young men like Keo to reach out to their peers on such gritty issues as gangs, teenage pregnancy and self-respect. They wear polo shirts with the logo "EM3."

Along the way, the hope is that EM3 members learn how to become self-confident young adults who help their families and community — and who aren't afraid of institutions like City Hall.

Keo said EM3 prepared him to literally step up. "I really wasn't nervous," Keo said. "The council people all listened. It's not so bad when you believe in what you say. I want to make my city better."

One of EM3's fans is Councilman Dee Andrews, whose district includes the hospital. "I like seeing what EM3 does for the youth in getting them involved," said Andrews. "This program is a great asset to our community."

Boys to men
EM3 was created in 1996 to give Cambodian-American teenagers an alternative to joining gangs. The Cambodian community in Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, is the largest outside of Cambodia. It was settled by refugees from the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and its members now make up 12 percent of the population of Long Beach.

Lillian Lew, who runs the program for St. Mary, said EM3 has expanded to include Latino and African-American youth. There is room at any one time for about two dozen teenage males, ages 14 to 19, who participate

as long as they wish. They take classes at St. Mary on such topics as responsibility, self-esteem, job-interview skills, public speaking and leadership. Accompanied by adult EM3 coordinators, the members then lead discussions on those subjects among boys and girls their age at schools, basketball camps and summer programs in a local park.

"We know that young people are more willing to listen to their peers," Lew said. "We want them to develop confidence and hope in their futures so they don't choose high-risk activities, like gang violence."

Keo said he discusses sex with fellow teens by stressing abstinence and safe sex. More importantly, he said, EM3 promotes a sense of self-respect and responsibility for both sexes. "You don't have to sell yourself short," he said.

Lew said all together the EM3 members speak to as many as 400 of their peers each year. She said multiple-choice tests given to the peers before and after their EM3 sessions indicate they become about 30 percent more informed on the issues discussed.

Civic engineering
EM3 members persuaded city officials to improve sidewalks, pedestrian walkways and traffic lights at a high school. Members also counted the number of smokers at children's play areas in parks to press their successful campaign for smoke-free zones in the parks.

Lew said EM3 members have a high-school graduation rate of 95 percent, compared to an overall rate in Long Beach of 78 percent for the 2010-11 school year. Many of them attend college, some becoming web designers and aircraft engineers. Others are employed as security guards. She said some young men leave the program, and one was killed in gang violence.

"We have the gamut," said Lew, who helped to create the program and has been with it since. "To me, if you are productive, supporting yourself and your family and contributing to the community, you are a success."

Keo graduated from high school in June, got a job at a restaurant and began classes at Long Beach City College last month.

The long game

Lew said she is most gratified when she meets adult alumni of EM3. "Sometimes I'm at the mall, and I hear someone calling my name, and it's one of the boys," she said. "They talk about what a positive experience it was for them. For me, that's huge."

One young man who returned to work for EM3 full-time is Sovanna Has, 31, who is one of Lew's two EM3 staff. Has said the program helped him quit a street gang when he was a teenager. He credits the program with saving his life.

"The night I quit, I had been riding around in a car with four other guys," he said. "The next day that car was shot up, and one guy was killed. Four or five shots hit the back seat. That's where I had been riding."

Has said he was born in Stockton, Calif., one of three children of parents who had fled Cambodia. He said his family moved to Long Beach when he was in seventh grade, and he joined a gang to find friendship and safety on the streets.

He heard about EM3 through one of its basketball programs. What persuaded him to commit was a camping trip to Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno in central California.

"It showed me a much bigger world," he said. "We could talk about things, work together and have fun."

After finishing high school — the same school Keo later attended — Has got a job at an arcade center. He credits EM3 with teaching him the skills to get the job and work his way to senior manager three years later. He stayed in touch with EM3 by volunteering at its basketball camps. When Lew offered him a staff job six years ago, Has jumped at the chance.

Has said EM3 often brings in adjunct speakers to work with the youth members when they speak at schools and the park. All of the speakers have been there, he said — teen parents, former gang members, people who are HIV positive. "That always opens young peoples' eyes," he said.

Has said he talks about his own time wasted in a gang. "I show them a picture of me back then and they say, 'You really did look like a gang member,'" Has said. "They speak with amazement at how I was able to change my life. I tell them I'm glad that EM3 was there for me."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.