D.J." is an 18-year-old local boy who seems to have trouble maintaining eye contact, constantly shifting in his seat and checking his surroundings, over each shoulder. Looking after himself is second nature; D.J. has been a member of a gang since he was 13, when he had to fight three "old G's," or grown gang members, in order to be initiated.
"I was in some pain then," he said, "for sure. But I was a good fighter, they didn't beat me down."
For years after that, D.J. lived the gang lifestyle, wearing what he was told, fighting who he was told, and even eating and drinking what he was told.
"I couldn't stay in school because I had to fight all the time," he said. "You don't have a choice. Someone throws up a sign and insults your boys, you have to fight them. Have to."
Now living with his mom and brother, D.J. is just glad to have his family together and safe. For most of his adolescence, he struggled with the idea of killing his mother's abusive boyfriend, who lived in the house with him and his brother, often eating the food that they had to go without, and hurting their mom.
"I was gonna kill him, but then one day he busted my mom's head up and then shot out to Texas, so that's good," D.J. said. "I don't know why she put up with him, but she just let him do whatever."
When his mom saw him wearing the blue Crips bandanna, D.J. recalls that she confronted him about his activity, and he told her the truth.
"I was a little sad that I was disappointing her, but I was like, 'hey, you haven't cared what happened to me all this time, why should I care what you think now?'"
Now, though still a gang member, which he says is for life, D.J. is trying to live in a more positive and less dangerous way, taking control back, thanks to the friendship of a man he met on the street.
Bebe Gillespie, a recently reformed drug dealer and new director of Healing in the Hood, spends all of his free time attempting to mentor young men like D.J.
"My mom met him and introduced us," said D.J., "and he just calls to check on me, and he told me living the gang life isn't worth dying for, and that trouble is easy to get into but hard to get out of. I listened to him because he said what I needed to hear, and I knew he had been where I was. Now, even though I'm not out, I realize that those guys can't control what I do."
D.J. now attends Healing in the Hood's twice weekly sports program, which includes a boxing club and basketball teams, because it is a good place to spend his time and provides him with positive friendships. He says he doesn't walk the streets or fight anymore, even if provoked, and only hangs out with certain people. With the help of the program, he is studying for his G.E.D., and plans to apply for a job at American Greetings and start going to church.
'We're all ex-somethings'
Healing in the Hood now offers programs four nights each week, half of them in a classroom built onto the back of Gillespie's house, the other half at the old YMCA on Second Street. In the classroom, young men receive tutoring with schoolwork and classes on self-respect, respect for others, and basic life skills such as making a resume and applying for a job. With a focus on rehabilitating young gang members and drug dealers, the program is full and Gillespie is constantly receiving requests from parents to take their sons.
"Right now," he said, "we're full. I just don't have room for any more, and all of this has been done out of our pockets."
Gillespie has the help of his father, Sandy Gillespie, a former professional boxer, and other friends and fellow church members.
"We're all ex-somethings," joked Bebe. "Ex-cons, ex-drug dealers, you name it. Some of us got caught and some of us didn't, but God was gracious to open our eyes and deliver all of us from those lifestyles, and now we can help because we know what it's like."
As a young man, Gillespie himself would have benefited from the type of program he now runs. When he was 10 years old, his stepfather shot his mother to death, and never recovering from that experience, he allowed himself to "get caught up with the wrong people." Although he is now married and a father of five, working at Lowe's and going to college, he says he is lucky to be alive and grateful to God for each day.
Kevieon, another young man who participates in Healing in the Hood, says that he knows it would be harder for kids like him to make any progress in the world without King's contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
At 13, Kevieon can look forward to success in high school and college, which he knows was not possible in King's day. Another example of a child headed in the wrong direction, Kevieon took the initiative to correct his own life two years ago, when he made the decision to leave his mother's house and move in with his grandmother.
"My mom just didn't do right herself, and she never cared where I was or what I was doing," he said. "I was always getting in trouble and I knew I needed some rules, someone to tell me what to do.
"I see her sometimes now, but her neighborhood is nothing but trouble so I don't go there much. My grandma makes sure I come home on time and do my homework, and I needed that."
Kevieon turned to Healing in the Hood about a month ago, when he was arrested for "just being in the wrong place at the wrong time," and realized that he had to find something positive to do in his spare time. He is excited about joining the boxing club, which he says helps him control his anger and be positive in his dealings with other people.
A version of the 'dream'
For Gillespie, Healing in the Hood is his version of King's "dream."
"This is a passion for me, my soul burns to help these young men," he said. "And if we all work together, we can create a community like King wanted us to have, the black and white children loving each other, and no one committing violence against each other. Our (black) community is, unfortunately, where so much trouble comes from because now we are violent with each other. We have to help these kids see that they are worth more than that."
Gillespie hopes that the trip to learn more about King's life and work will be a life-changing experience for the young men in his program, much like it was for him, and to help them understand that, in D.J.'s words, "being in the streets isn't worth dying for."
The program, which attempts to teach peace and love to a new generation of youth made angry by hard circumstances, is in dire need of help from the community. According to Gillespie, community members who could be a positive role model and who would be willing to speak at classes and offer their time as mentors are needed; but what the group really needs is money or item donations that will help them build their facilities and offer new programs.