In 2008, Caheri Gutierrez, a young model from East Oakland, was shot in her beautiful face and nearly killed in a drive-by.
She’d been counting on that face to be the foundation of a modeling career. Gutierrez had been a gifted student and athlete, but in the year before she was shot, she’d been fighting with her family, smoking too much weed, and was kicked out of two high schools. More and more she’d come to rely on her beauty for attention, and for her future. One powerful bullet and that future was gone. After nearly dying that night, she awoke to find herself jawless and toothless and deaf in one ear.
Tammy Cloud, an Intervention Specialist in Youth ALIVE!’s Caught in the Crossfire program, was assigned to Gutierrez’ case. During the long days and weeks of Gutierrez’ recuperation, Cloud visited frequently to listen, advise, and shuttle her to medical appointments. Cloud also encouraged therapy and helped Gutierrez get back on track to graduate.
After some early resistance, Gutierrez finished her GED work even before her high school class had finished their school year. With Cloud’s help, she signed up for classes at Chabot College in Hayward. She started playing volleyball there. Her self-esteem began to climb.
In the meantime, Cloud recognized that Gutierrez’ story might capture the attention of young people. Gutierrez soon got a job with Youth ALIVE!’s Teens on Target (TNT) program. TNT trains East Oakland high school students to develop peer education presentations on violence, gangs and guns. Gutierrez is now a TNT Violence Prevention Educator and Case Manager.
Watching Gutierrez work with the TNT students, it’s clear that they are drawn to her and her story. Recently Gutierrez spoke to a group of TNT students. “I said, ‘Listen, this is a true story, and it could happen to you guys, and it hurt me soooo much, and it could happen to you, not just physically but mentally.”
Telling the story and talking to the students about their lives and work seems to pull Gutierrez up from her grief. When she’s working with them, the wounds on her face seem the farthest thing from her mind.
Read more about Caheri.
When I first moved to Oakland, I had already heard so many bad things about it that it caused me to be afraid. One of the first things I thought about was protection, so I got a gun and pocket knife. As I reflect, it’s alarming how easy it was for me to get the gun with no questions asked.
I wasn’t really into the TNT program at first, but I decided to join for the food and money. At the time, I was having problems at home, so the program became a way of escaping the hurt I often felt while at home. I didn’t have a voice at home, but everyone in the program took an interest in me and wanted to hear what I had to say.
My perspective on the program didn’t really change until I did my first presentation at Rich Academy. I presented some facts on gang violence and all the students were hanging on to my every word. They were able to relate to me because my name is Smooth and I looked like them since I was really close to their age. I felt incredible. I finally felt like someone was listening to me, and it motivated me want to help other kids feel good like it was helping me. It was then that TNT became home and [Peer Educators] Demetria and Caheri became family to me. It seemed like whenever I was with them that everything else I had going on at home didn’t hurt anymore.
Before TNT, my grades were slipping, I had not direction, or passion. The program pushed me to do more for the community and to set goals for myself. Not only did I graduate at the top of my class, but I was also given the opportunity to speak at my graduation.
Even today, I still feel Demetria and Caheri pushing and encouraging me when I feel like giving up. Every time I hear from them, they are always asking how I am doing in school and in life, because they really care. They are still my family. Family will always be there, no matter the distance or the time that goes by. Home is where the heart is, and my heart will always be with TNT.
Jean Eason had a rough childhood in Oakland. He can sometimes sound angry about the way he was tossed around from home to home, even living for a couple of months out of his mother’s boyfriend’s truck.
After barely graduating from Skyline High, employment opportunities were few and far between. He enlisted and found himself an infantryman in Afghanistan. He saw little action and managed to leave the Army without injury. Then he came home to Oakland and got shot.
It was New Year’s Eve, mid-morning, a Saturday in East Oakland. He was sitting in a parked car with an acquaintance.
“And I looked in the mirror,” Jean says, “and I saw the guy had a gun pointing in the back of the car. And he hada smile on his face. That made me hot, so I jumped out of the car.”
Jean’s foot got caught in the seat belt and the bullet penetrated his right leg, shattering his tibia. The other guy in the car was shot seven times.
Soon after the shooting, as Jean lay depressed and immobilized in a hole-in-the-wall East Oakland apartment, he got a call from Ray Estrada, of Youth ALIVE!’s Caught in the Crossfire program.
“I didn’t have one thing,” Jean remembers. “I didn’t have a job. The place I was staying was in a rough spot. I had a full leg cast on. I’d been shot for something I had nothing to do with. It was low.”
But Ray kept showing up. He took Jean to hospital appointments, helped with job applications, and encouraged him to seek therapy.
Jean says the therapy helped him deal with the trauma, but also helped to improve his relationship with his family. He found a job, then a better one, and his leg feels great. Life is again a thing he embraces.
Jean says, “Ray helped me get the joy in life back.”
Read more about Jean.
Brandon Lee Vega
I’m Brandon Lee Vega. I was born in East L.A. My family moved to Oakland when I was 13 because my mom was looking for a better paying job.
I’m 19 now. We live in the Deep, also known as Deep East Oakland. My dad left when I was 7. When I needed him he wasn’t there. When my dad left out of my life, my uncle was helping raise me, then he was gone, away to jail for life. I think boys depend on their dad. Without that, they don’t have that guidance.
I got in trouble in L.A. and I got in trouble in Oakland. I got in fights. I sold weed. I robbed people. I hung around with older guys. Guys I met in the hood. I dropped out. I was never school smart. My school was the streets.
Then I got arrested and went to juvy. When I got out, Youth ALIVE! came into my life.
Then I got arrested and went to juvy.
When I got out, Youth ALIVE! came into my life. They help you get back to school, get off probation and stay off probation. I see my case manager Jesus Martinez a lot. He commits to it. He says, Bro, I’ll see you on Wednesday, he’s there on Wednesday. (Even if I’m not.) Shows he cares. I tell everybody, Jesus is family. Because he helps me out. It’s all positivity. Me and Jesus, we’ve been through the same things. With him, I learn how to forgive. He tells me, sometimes we forgive, even though it’s hard.
Now I’m surrounded by positivity. I want to get my diploma and go to college. It’s always in your head, college, college, college. It’s stressful! But it’s way better than the negativity I was used to.
Not so long ago, I told Jesus how I got in an argument with my mom. I was telling him what I did. And he was like, you messed up, you got to make it right. Jesus, he doesn’t show fake love. I have friends who show fake love. But he doesn’t. I never had that love in my life until now. I trust him.
With Jesus’s help, I attended the first meeting of Oakland’s new Youth Leadership Council and I’m applying to be a permanent member. I have a lot to say and I’m not afraid to say it.
Jesus also works with some of my friends, and we all believe in him. He helps us believe in ourselves. Thanks for reading. I really hope you will consider giving a donation to Youth ALIVE! by clicking youthalive.org/donate.
In 2013, Aireana and her boyfriend were driving through Oakland when a man on the street opened fire on their car. Her two children, ages 6 and 1, were in the backseat. Aireana remembers feeling something slam into her jaw and hearing a sound like a firecracker popping in her head. Her boyfriend, panicking, crashed into a parked car.
In the shock after the crash, Aireana had only one coherent thought: I cannot die in front of my kids. She unbuckled her seat belt and pushed herself out of the car. She could hear her daughter screaming behind her, “My mom’s dying!”
A bullet had smashed through her front teeth, grazed her tongue and broken her jaw. Aireana stayed in the hospital for more than a month.
“You’re so lucky,” her friends kept telling her. But Aireana couldn’t stop thinking about the shooting. The shooting played over and over in her dreams. Sometimes, reliving it, she remembered to duck, and then the bullet passed over her and hit one of her children. She’d wake in a panic, soaked in sweat.
In the aftermath of the shooting, she struggled to pay her bills. The phone company cut off her cell phone, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want to talk to anyone. Instead, she spent most of the day asleep.
Aireana and her daughter were visited at home by Nicky MacCallum, Youth Alive!’s licensed marriage and family therapist. For people who have grown up in violent neighborhoods, the traditional 50-minute therapy session is not always right for them. By bringing therapy out of the clinic and into the community, Youth Alive! has seen an increase in the number of patients engaged in active therapy: from about 5 percent of its clients to 35 percent.
MacCallum taught Aireana’s 6-year-old how to calm herself with deep belly breaths and she talked to the girl about trauma in age-appropriate ways. Sometimes MacCallum and Aireana’s daughter would sit on the living room floor and draw together as a way to express emotions too difficult to put into words. Aireana would sit off to one side and watch the sessions. When the therapist told her, “Adults can draw too,” she then picked up a marker herself. This led to Aireana finally sitting down with MacCallum for a session of her own.
MacCallum diagnosed Aireana with PTSD. “Nicky helped me,” Aireana says. “She was the first person I actually talked to who believed it was real, that my feelings were real.”
Over the summer in Oakland, Aireana’s children were terrified by the sound of fireworks. They kept thinking they were hearing gunshots. On the Fourth of July, Aireana decided she would try to help her kids adjust to the sound, rather than shutting it out. As her neighbors set off firecrackers in the street, she kept her kids at a distance. She pointed to the lights: “That one’s cool.” A purple explosion: “Oooh, nice.” Gradually, they walked closer. Later, she gave her kids sparklers and watched them run around making glowing scribbles in the dark. She had always loved fireworks. It was good to see her kids not being afraid and enjoying them, too.
Read more about Aireana.
Letter from Berkeley High
January 17, 2016
Dear Ms. Marks:
This letter is long overdue.
Near the end of school last year, in June, I requested a representative from Youth Alive to speak to my class about violence prevention strategies in Oakland. Kyndra Simmons agreed to visit four classes of INE Literacy, a small, self-contained class for students with IEPs who read far below grade level.
I should tell you that many of the students I teach are low-income and live outside of Berkeley. They have lost countless friends and relatives to violence. This includes my student S*, who lost two cousins last year and one more since. But on the very day of Kyndra’s visit, something else had happened. S’s mother had died that morning.
On this day, I didn’t expect S to be at school. When she came to class, Kyndra was in the midst of discussing your program. S put her head down on the desk and I went over to her and asked her if she minded my telling the class what happened. What followed was Kyndra leading the class through a gentle, informal workshop about the normal, healthy process of grief, what people can typically experience, and how to get help and support. S was able to cry for the first time that day, and each of her classmates, with Kyndra’s support, was able to offer her comfort and sympathy.
This experience was a watershed moment for my class, one in which they learned coping skills for themselves and those closest to them, that they will use for the rest of their lives. It is unfortunate that we live in such a violent place and time, and that children have to experience so much tragedy, but with organizations like yours and caring professionals like Kyndra Simmons, we at least can say that they have caring arms to hold them and to try and prevent future tragedies from happening.
Thank you so much for the work you do, and please extend my deepest gratitude to Kyndra.
Susannah Bell, Education Specialist
P.S. S is a senior this year – she has been doing well and will graduate in June.
*Initial used to protect privacy.