Alex Olivera once lived a life of crime. He spent much of his youth in prison, but is today trying to help other troubled youth avoid those treacherous roads he once traveled.
Olivera, an outreach worker at the Humboldt Park/Logan Square CeaseFire, was able turn his life around.
When Olivera was younger, he used to love school, but he had no one to show off his grades to. His father died when he was a baby. Meanwhile, his mother worked long hours and his older brothers didn’t care about his grades.
By the time he was 11 years old, Olivera was hanging out on Humboldt Park street corners. He was embraced by gang members who told him they loved him, they were his brothers and that they would die for him.
But Olivera wasn’t feeling so much love once he started a 20-year prison sentence at age 15 on charges of first-degree, gang-related murder.
“The first 10 years in prison, I was really angry; but the second 10 years, I came down off the rush and realized this wasn’t the life I wanted,” he said. “I don’t give back because I have nothing better to do, I give back because I’ve taken so much.”
Olivera’s not the only former gang-banger looking to heal the communities he once terrorized.
While he was growing up in Chicago’s Northwest and South sides, it was normal for former member Geno to see people getting shot and dealing drugs.
The son of the founder of a prominent gang in Chicago, Geno, who is now 37 and under house arrest after being released from prison last August, was born into gang life and has been through horrors.
He has been in prison three times for drug charges, was shot in the back and the arm, stabbed twice in his leg and arm, and was almost kidnapped. Hundreds of his buddies are dead from suicides, bullets or overdoses. Geno knew he had to change.
But this realization ultimately came when his sister was fatally shot six years ago at a nightclub in Chicago. He couldn’t take waking up in the night covered in a cold sweat. Geno couldn’t believe he was still alive.
Not only was he committed to getting out of gang life, he is now dedicated to helping others.
“My goal is to go to young kids, tell them the money, the drugs, the girls-it’s not cool,” he said. “I would like to start a crusade for free to help kids, provide them a place to go when things are bad, or not bad, [and] let them talk about problems.”
Talking to children in schools to warn them of the dangers of gang life is an important part of prevention, said Magdalena Pagan, director of the violence prevention initiative at Alliance of Local Service Organization in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
CeaseFire has hired ex-convicts and former gang members to reach at-risk youth. Although the group, technically, hasn’t existed since its funding was cut late last year, the outreach workers are still volunteering.
Their unconventional and proactive prevention tactics help reduce violence, members say, adding that those techniques work better than the “rounding ’em up and kicking them out” strategies police tend to use.
“Those harassing techniques [police have], I give low marks for keeping kids out of gangs,” said the Rev. Tom Terrell of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Albany Park.
The church sponsors a tutoring program after school and a weekly basketball night for youth.
Terrell realized that much more was needed after one of the regulars at basketball night was gunned down near his church almost three years ago.
Shootings in communities where CeaseFire has a presence decreased an average of 42 percent from 1999 to 2005. Overall, shootings in Chicago decreased from 4,038 in 1999 to 1,667 in 2005.
“[Police] realize it’s better for a crime not to be committed, then for them to work it,” said James Highsmith, deputy director of mediation services at Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, located on the city’s South Side.
And the new peace message former gang members are sending in the communities they once terrorized is very “unconventional and powerful,” advocates note.
“We use our unique abilities to talk to guys similar to me,” said Highsmith, who spent four years in prison.
Geno maintained that he can reach youth and prove how unglamorous gang life is.
“The average gang member doesn’t make it past [age] 21,” he said.
And if one of Olivera’s clients came to him wanting to hurt someone, he admits to them that they could, but asks them to first imagine their mother crying at their funeral.
Olivera tells them about a cousin of one of his clients who got shot seven times in the back. The victim’s mother lined a hallway in her home leading up to her bedroom with pictures of her dead son.
“We deal with the worst of the worst of the worst,” said Pagan said. “We’re never going to be able to remove the gangs, but I think if gangs can still exist and not kill each other, then we’ve made progress.”