A Winnipeg group that helps gang members leave the criminal life is now hoping to turn its attention to preventing children from joining gangs in the first place.

Paapiiwak runs several programs to help people leave the gang life, including counselling, a tattoo coverup program, and a transition house to help people who are having trouble escaping a gang.

Jeff Wilson says the group is now looking at working more closely with schoolchildren.

"We need to deal with this new generation coming up, or else we're going to be worse," he said.

"We need to now approach aggressively these children and warn them of the pitfalls and give them the information before the gangs do. If the gangs give them the information, it sounds glorious. But when we give the information, it's gritty reality. That's what they need to hear."

Wilson is applying for federal funding to finance a program that would see his pool of ex-gang members go into more schools.

Boy deterred from gang involvement

Winnipeg mother Elizabeth Tirado applauds the move. Tirado says when her son was 12, he came close to being recruited by a gang, but Paapiiwak's anti-gang program turned his life around.

Tirado recalls the time she began to realize her son was becoming involved with gangs. The boy was skipping school and spending time hanging around with gang members.

"I wasn't joining them or anything, I was just hanging around with them," he said. "I used to think they were cool."

Tirado said his school noticed the change: "The school principal called me and said, 'We're concerned about how much he knows about gangs, and how much he's not talking to us about it,' and I just flipped out."

Tirado heard about Paapiiwak's programming and marched her son over. There, he met with ex-gang members who shared harrowing stories about their life in gangs. It changed his views, he says.

"I'm not hanging out around them no more," he said.

"It made him pick the right path,"adds Tirado. "He's in the army cadets. He's in class. He doesn't hang around them because he's scared."

But Tirado adds that no program will effectively inoculate children against gangs if their parents don't become involved.