Monday, October 29, 2012

"Jobs not Jails." Homeboy Industries: A Must See for Anyone in LA

The past hour blew my mind. A 37 yr old man named Neal honestly told us his whole life story and the only way I knew it would have a resolution was the fact that he was physically standing right there, wearing a Homeboy Industries shirt showing he worked there. One thing I struggle with often in this line of work, is how blessed and privileged I have been and to me it is important to if not relate, at least be able to empathize with those around me. Of course this is not a bad thing that I have such a wonderful family and upbringing, but just when I think I've seen hardship enough to at least empathize-> extreme poverty, patients with malaria, children with malnutrition and no shoes,  orphans, victims of the Rwandan genocide, and domestically abused women to name a few, the list continues to lengthen. Here is yet another way I have now seen hardship, drugs. You always hear the stories in DARE not to use drugs or watch videos on how badly they can screw up your life, but here was a true account coming from an individual who had lived through it all. 

He had one brother left after the other five and his dad had died from being heroine addicts. He went through a DARE program and was determined to change. His mom was physically abused and he fought the boyfriend, resulting in a prison sentence of five years. DUring this time, he had no contacts with his family and an IV addict explained ot him the reason he did it was to make time pass faster as it allowed him to be in a vegetative state for several hours. And as most drugs do, a little turned into an IV addiction. When he got out of prison, he became a construction worker, but left work feeling empty. When he was laid off and just needed to pay bills, selling drugs seemed an easy way to do so. Until that decision resulted in being ducttaped and kidnapped in an abandoned house. A squatter couple found him and if they hadn't...

He decided then he must change if he didn't want to end up like his other family members. He went with the ducttape still on his arms to Homeboy and has now been there 17 months. If they had to lay him off, he would still volunteer and when he does go to other employment, he will always keep Homeboy in his vocabulary. A quote he said that will resonate with me for awhile is, "My dad taught me to steal a bike, not ride one." They steal from the rich because they know they can just buy another one without any concept of what it means to earn that money. They don't have an opportunity to change their mindset. Yes I know this sounds like an incredibly radical scapegoat and perhaps ignorant, but think about it. 

Homeboy is so transformative because it not only offers free services like tattoo removal with 21,000 removals a year, a free lawyer, counselors, and jobs, but classes. THis is where the transformation takes place; "you have to change your mind; otherwise it will happen again." SO they have classes from anger management to choir to yoga to bookclub to parent and me. THey have a high school for the kids and Neal went to a domestic abuse class, not because he had ever done that. But because he wanted to understand why his mom put up with it. He doesn't still and strives to encourage women they can do it on their own. Women are stronger (dang right!). 

After this heartwrenching, but very real story out in the sunny garden, I expected a pedestrian tour of seeing offices and the bakery. No such thing. Our next stop was the tattoo removal doctor who told me 27 doctors volunteer their time. The tattoo machine alone costs 50,000 and the laser glasses were $500. But then he asked us to put on the glasses and we witnessed a tattoo removal. They focus on wrist down and neck up since the rest can be hidden and have clients from all over the country ranging from 5 yrs old to 70. 5 yr olds come with what you may think is an innocent Hello Kitty symbol that is actually a gang and leads to triggered shootings. Or three dots on the eye (my crazy life). The guy we witnessed had VLM tattooed on his cheek and had a baby on the way, which triggers shootings. 

The laser gun was like 10,000 rubber bands snapping against his face a second, which sounds painful enough. But then when he showed us what it was literally doing against the wall, it sparked! Obviously excruciatingly painful, but temporary pain to change their lives and keep their families safe. " It took Neal 17 treatments and a year and a half to remove his neck tattoo, but now he has time for his two kids to be a dad, his wife to be a husband, and time for himself. He does things he would never have imagined like yoga and knows a new way. 

There are 2100 gangs in LA. A Jesuit priest made himself relevant to ex-incarcerated and gang members in LA. How can we not? If we spent $1500 on a child per year, we could keep them safe and belonging to a positive musical experience, all the while expanding their academics and character, increasing their family involvement, and preparing them to be global citizens. It's a primary prevention tool and in the long run would save us billions (it costs about 300,000 over a lifetime for a highschool dropout). We can have safer communities, better children's lives, and save money. How does it get better than that? Obviously, it's not a magic switch or an overnight occurrence, but this is what these programs CAN do. 95% of graduates from these programs went on to college and one even was a Fulbright scholar!

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