As a young boy growing up on the streets of Miami, Donald Smyth turned to gang members for support.
"From the time I was 12 years old I was involved with gangs," said Smyth, now a youth pastor at the Soldotna Church of God.
"I was not like a normal 12-year-old, size-wise, more like a 17-year-old," he said.
He quickly gained a reputation on the streets as a kid willing to do anything. Smyth was soon associated with one of the largest gangs in Miami, stealing cars, doing drugs and drinking.
Smyth never knew his father. He was raised by his mother, grandmother and three sisters. His mother worked constantly, so he and his sisters led a life free of parental discipline, he said.
As the youngest and only male in the family, Smyth didn't have a strong male role model.
"Really, I had no good role model in my life at all," he said. "A lot of young people wouldn't get into the stuff they do if they had someone to care for them. Me and my friends didn't have those kinds of people."
Through a Friday night program run by the Soldotna Church of God, Smyth is providing local youths with the support and guidance he lacked while growing up.
"Teens just want to be loved, and they will go wherever they can to find it," said Smyth.
Every Friday, starting at 7:45 p.m., students congregate outside the church and wait for the doors to open at 8:30.
The program began a year and a half ago when Smyth relocated to the peninsula from Miami, where he made the initial transformation from gang member to youth pastor.
It took a life-threatening experience for Smyth to realize that his life was heading down a dangerous path.
"When I was 15, I was involved in a gang fight on the wrong side of town," he said, explaining that a stab wound punctured his lung and he nearly died.
After his brush with death, Smyth decided to dedicate his time and energies toward wrestling.
"It was something I was really good at," he recalled. "God blessed me with a natural ability, and the coach took me under his wing."
However, wrestling parties drew Smyth back into the world of drugs and alcohol. By the time he was 20, he had developed a $700-a-week cocaine habit.
"I was losing my friends and family," he said.
Around the same time, his sister became involved with a local church.
"She gave her heart to the Lord," said Smyth, who added that he saw his sister's life change and witnessed the end of his mother's 50-year-old alcohol problem.
After six months, he finally gave into their pressures and went to a Sunday service.
"I felt a desperate need to change," he said. "The Word soaked into my heart and spirit. It was like the preacher was speaking right to me."
By his second visit to the church, he had decided to never touch another drug or drop of alcohol.
Smyth had been working as a bouncer for various clubs and bars since he was 17. Although he had not worked in six months, he felt a need to change his life and accepted an offer for another job bouncing at a club.
For six months he worked at a bar, but his newfound faith allowed him to remain steadfast in his resolve to avoid all drugs and alcohol.
Next, Smyth worked for a brief time at Boys Town, a home for troubled boys, but quit when he began training under the youth pastor at his church.
A youth at Smyth's church introduced him to his future wife. Today they have two children -- 9-year-old Vincent and 4-year-old Jordan.
In 1999, Smyth said he knew it was time to leave Florida. He put his resume on the Church of God Web site and received responses from New York, California, Alaska and other states.
He spoke with the pastor of the Soldotna Church of God and flew up to the peninsula for an interview and to meet the congregation. Smyth felt that they shared the same vision for youth.
He and his wife were only scheduled to stay for a week, but a hurricane in Florida changed their travel plans. They stayed and Smyth got to know the youth in the congregation. He decided Alaska was the change he needed.
"The rest," Smyth said, "is history."
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.