As a riverboat passes by on a quiet river in Tennessee, an ex-gang member from Pacoima, Calif. sits on a dock nearby. Just watching. Breathing. Living.
This serene setting is a world and life away from where a 12-year-old Neil Gutierrez was issued a seven-year sentence for beating up his mother’s boyfriend. He walked into her house to pick up clothes and found her live-in boyfriend there with other women while she was at work.
He got beat up that day for defending her but came back with a group of friends. They put the boyfriend in a coma for weeks. He served four of the seven years for attempted murder.
Once he was home, at a family reunion, the boyfriend and Gutierrez had words again.
“I really wanted to take that man’s life that day,” says Gutierrez.
But he didn’t.
Instead, his older brother Erwin, one of four, took care of the problem. Literally.
Erwin was convicted for murder and has been serving a life-sentence since 1990.
Now, 36, Neil spent the majority of his life incarcerated or on drugs—or both—has found a new path with Homeboy Industries.
Homeboy Industries, which is based out of Los Angeles and was founded by Father Greg Boyle in 2001, helps reformed gang members in all aspects. They provide jobs, education and tattoo removal, and other ways to help gang members reform.
Neil has held several jobs within Homeboy Industries, but currently he works in the payroll office, keeping timecards accurate.
“Once I walked in here I knew this where I belonged,” says Neil. “I have more feeling of acceptance here than I’ve ever had in my life. I feel more at home here than at home.”
One benefit of working at Homeboy Industries is getting to join Boyle when he travels to speak in various places. He will sometimes take the homeboys to get them out of their surroundings. Neil, along with another homeboy, went with Boyle on a trip to Tennessee, where for the first time he was able to relax in a peaceful setting.
But Tennessee is a long way from home, and so is Homeboy Industries.
The organization is a block away from Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. To get there he takes two buses and the train. His total commute time is at least four hours a day.
Neil currently has two strikes and four felonies spread out over his young life. He was born in Brooklyn and was sent to live with his grandmother in El Salvador when he was three.
He didn’t re-unite with his mother until he was 10 years old.
“He is a very good guy who’s been through a lot in his life,” says Boyle about Neil.
Gutierrez struggled when he came to California. Not really knowing his mother, he lived with his brothers.
Two of Neil’s older brothers are dead and one is in jail. One of his brothers overdosed, as did his father. Another one of his brothers was murdered. While attending that funeral his best friend was murdered. And Erwin will be in prison for life.
His family life has never been like those you see on a sitcom.
“I don’t really know what that word means,” says Neil. “I did crime with my brothers and got high with my dad. That’s not normal. “
Gutierrez wasn’t just jumped into a gang. He was born into it.
“To think that I was fighting and willing to die over a street that didn’t even belong to me is ridiculous to me now,” says Neil.
He is now trying to change what he has known as family.
Being a father of two girls, Lynnette, 15 and Lannae, 10, he is focused on them instead.
He spends every weekend with Lannae and he takes every opportunity to be a kid with her.
They go shopping, to the zoo and sometimes just stay in.
“He’s a really good dad,” says Lannae. “He lets me watch my TV shows even when he doesn’t like them.”
And although they don’t talk about the incident, he is also working on the relationship with his mother.
But a majority of his days focus on Homeboy Industries.
-MORE THAN OFFICE WORK-
There are six businesses under the Homeboy Industries umbrella. They have a silk-screening business, a bakery and even a successful line of chips and salsa that can be found in major grocery stores.
The organization’s restaurant, Homegirl Café, uses the farm-to-table method. The café grows fresh herbs and vegetables and uses them in their menu.
But more than that, Homeboy Industries offers reforming gang members education. They have a charter school that provides an education to kids that are potential dropouts. They also offer addiction recovery meetings and anger management classes, and there are resources to help find jobs outside of Homeboy Industries.
The organization also offers tattoo removal. Depending on the tattoo, it can take up to 30 treatments for a tattoo to be removed.
“We have people come in from age 5-87,” says Troy Clark, a Homeboy Industries tattoo removal volunteer. “I see about 50-75 patients a day, which can be three or four, up to 500 tattoos a day.”
Homeboy Industries has offered dog-obedience classes, and Neil, a dog-lover, joined. He now is a certified dog-trainer.
Fabian DeVora, Neil’s co-worker and an artist, said he has dramatically changed from the first time they met.
“He’s gotten a taste of life and how to be a responsible individual,” says DeVora. “Now we are hoping Neil can begin to dream big.”
Neil is trying to dream big, but he also is concentrating on his sobriety. He says he has been clean from heroin for four years.
“Right now we’re at the point where just breathing just makes us feel good,” says Neil. “Life and peace of mind is much nicer than a new car.”
Being able to actually breathe easy and enjoy life is what Neil is all about. Homeboy Industries has given him the tools to accomplish that. So when he gets an opportunity, he takes in the simple things in life, such as sitting on a dock and watching a riverboat pass by for the first time.
For more information on Homeboy Industries visit: www.homeboy-industries.org