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 Reach 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.
My name is Miracle because my mom had four boys before me and thought she’d never have a girl. I’m a senior at Castlemont High School on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland. I have been a Teens on Target Youth Leader since I was a sophomore. Back then, a counselor told me she thought the program would be good for me. Maybe because I like to talk. I went to check it out because it was a violence prevention program. I love TNT because we talk about what’s real.
I grew up in East Oakland, by 96th and Plymouth. I always saw people on the corners or on the block hanging out, but I didn’t know they were selling drugs. They were just part of the neighborhood. One day when I was 10 my dad didn’t show up to pick me up on a Wednesday. He was always tough on my brothers, but nice to me. No one had seen him for a week. Then my mother came home one day crying. She told me she had been to the morgue to identify a body and it was my dad. That was a big eye opener for me.
There are a lot of hurt people in Oakland, not bad, but hurt people, people who have never been taught the straight and narrow or who do thing
s without thinking. People do things that are really hurting themselves. They don’t listen, or fall in step with the wrong people. There’s always a root cause of violence and death. At Castlemont, I know the gangs and turfs, and the people on this side and the people on that side. I even have some family members involved. I’ve had shootings in front of my house. Because of what I learn in TNT, I can talk to these kids about what’s real. I want to help people.
TNT is a place I can be myself, where we are always connecting on real life issues. First Caheri, who told her own story about getting shot and how it changed her life because of the Youth ALIVE! people around her. And now we have Fransua and Hisham. They are always open. They relate to you. They are funny, but we always end up having serious conversations. They give me knowledge. All along, people who cared have inspired me.
But my favorite TNT thing is what we do in the second half of the year, when we go into the middle school classrooms and speak to the younger students about violence prevention. We do skits and read poems. After they do our workshops they all want to come to Castlemont and join TNT. Some of them do and they remember me and come up to me in the hallway and say they’d seen me at their middle school. Now I’m the older one. Because of TNT, I’m a role model.
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.
There’s a lesson in Charlie Jones’s success. At least his success so far; Charlie’s only 15, a client in our Pathways program.
Last summer, Charlie spent some time in Juvenile Hall. He came home to life with his mom and sisters, to the neighborhood they call The Twenties, and other, more savage names that indicate all the blood that’s been shed on those blocks. On his release, he was referred to Youth ALIVE!’s Pathways program by his probation officer. Pathways intervention specialists take under their watchful wings young people transitioning out of incarceration. The client and the specialist spend time getting to know each other, figuring out what the young person needs to be successful in school, safe in life, and permanently free from the justice system.
By the time we met Charlie, he already knew what he wanted to do: play football. So we introduced him to Pathway’s Tino Ratliff, former NCAA wide receiver and, like the 6’2” Charlie, a tall person. Of course, those aren’t the only things Tino has going for him. More likely it’s his general positivity and good nature, along with his doggedness, that have helped spur Charlie on to good attendance, good grades and an outstanding year with Oakland High’s Junior Varsity football team.
Like a lot of 15-year-olds, Charlie’s a reluctant talker, but then suddenly he’ll take a breath and tell you something interesting and light up a little. He says his favorite class is English, that he likes writing essays, especially on things he knows about, like sports. He favorite books are about people who changed their lives. Charlie’s in the process of doing that right now. And there are lessons to learn for all of us, like have a dream, a goal you really care about. “Football really motivates me,” says Charlie. Another lesson: we all need some help in life. And not just when we are growing up. But perhaps especially then. For Charlie, help comes from his mom, his sister, from teachers who care, and from Tino.
“I can actually open up to Tino,” he says, “tell him stuff.” But Tino is more than an ear for Charlie. “Tino talked to me about what’s right, what’s the right thing to do. I listened and did it.” Still, Charlie’s biggest motivation is football.
“Being an athlete and a student keeps me busy and off the streets,” he says one morning sitting on a bench overlooking Oakland High’s playing field. “I want to be great.” Charlie says he is a leader. His leadership style is to push others, but not in a negative way. “If a guy messes up,” says Charlie, “don’t tell him how bad he did, but lift him up, bring them up.”
Charlie says his mom is proud of what he’s doing, but that she sees more potential. She thinks he should get higher grades.
While we are outside talking, a man passes by the bench and interrupts us. It’s Charlie’s PE teacher. He says a warm hello to Charlie and then, spontaneously, starts talking about how much Charlie has done to turn things around. “Charlie is really doing some good stuff,” he says. He’s not just talking about touchdowns and interceptions.
My name is Ismael Hernandez and I am very grateful to you for reading this message. I’m a senior at Castlemont High School on MacArthur Boulevard
in East Oakland and a proud member of Youth ALIVE!’s Teens on Target program. I joined TNT when I was a freshman, but not right away. I heard about it but didn’t pay that much attention at first. Then some students came to my class to talk about it. They said that at TNT they wanted to hear our stories. I grew up in Oakland. Personally, I had my family members lost to gun violence. When I was 10 my uncle was killed. He was a really good uncle and I wanted to tell his story. TNT taught me how. They care about you and your story.
I call our leaders my mentors. When they are talking, everybody listens. Demetria, Caheri, Wazi and Hisham are always there for us when we need them. We are like a little family. I’ve made a lot of friends, everybody shares their story. TNT made me part of a community.
We spend the first part of the year learning how to present a prevention workshop on all types of violence, gun violence, dating violence, family and domestic violence, everything. We learn about safe alternatives to violence. Then in the second part of the school year we present the workshop to middle school students around the city.
I always look forward to January when we start presenting. When you talk to those kids, they open up, you hear what they’ve been through and you can relate and they can relate to you. I’ve presented to a lot of kids and it has changed them. They know how violence impacts them and their city.
I get paid for the hours I put in at TNT but I’m not into the money. I do it for the skills I learn and to help change things. TNT has showed me that we can change things out in the community, little by little, step by step. I know I have changed because of TNT. It’s a really good program.
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.