Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Helping gang members and severely troubled youth develop healthier and hopeful lives doesn’t mean simply meeting them where they are. It also means helping them discover who they are as individuals, and while the youth are walking their journey to self-discovery, the individuals helping them are walking with them, sharing hope and love and often rediscovering themselves.
Such were points that Jesuit Fathers Jeff Putthoff and Greg Boyle made when they spoke about “The Work of Hope: A conversation on breaking the cycle of trauma and violence with youth” as part of the Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series, Tuesday, Nov. 14, at Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton.
Although the presentation was on youth who have experienced trauma and how to help them, the parish’s pastor, Father Sean Prince, felt it also spoke to the trauma anyone has gone through and enlightened them on how to understand trauma and work through it.
Father Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Located in Los Angeles, it trains and employs former gang members in a range of social enterprises, as well as provides critical services to 15,000 men and women who walk through its doors every year seeking a better life, according to the organization’s website.
Father Putthoff founded Hopeworks ‘N Camden in 2000 and served in that role until 2015. He is currently president of St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy, Toledo, Ohio. The New Jersey city is one of the poorest and most underserved communities in America with an estimated 70 percent dropout rate from its public high schools.
The organization uses trauma-informed care to train youth ages 14-23 in website design, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and salesforce technology.
Hopeworks, in its effort to support youth in all aspects of their lives, prepares them for the pressures and stresses of the workplace, and especially prepares them to stay healthy while managing these pressures, according to the organization’s website. Since opening its doors in March 2000, Hopeworks has worked with more than 3,000 youth to transform their lives.
Gang members and other at-risk youth who step off the streets and into Homeboy Industries and Hopeworks ‘N Camden have been robbed of their childhoods by trauma, the speakers said. Father Putthoff said the youth have been “terribly hurt” from neglect, abuse, violence, and lack of safety and food. The priest said those youth are living with toxic stress, to which Father Boyle added that when they are faced with that stress, they develop behaviors to survive.
Calling behavior a language, Father Putthoff recommended that instead of concentrating on why the youth did something, it’s important to delve into how the behavior was helpful to them. He explained individuals cannot rid themselves of toxic stress until they embrace who they are — yesterday and today.
For example, Father Boyle said when one of the men participating in Homeboy Industries was nine years old, he was watching TV. His mother entered the room with slashed wrists and said, “See what you made me do.”
The next day he was put into the foster care system; at age 13 he joined a gang, and at 17 he was incarcerated. At age 30, after being released from prison, he sought help from Homeboy Industries. As he sorted through his history, he remembered the incident and learned to forgive his mother for having a mental illness and to forgive himself for having been a 9-year-old boy.
The speakers emphasized the importance of creating a loving environment where youth feel safe to analyze their past and present, and thus transform themselves.
Likewise, those helping troubled youth also must look inside themselves and “welcome their wounds and brokenness,” Father Boyle said.
“If we don’t make friends with our wound, then we may well be tempted to despise the wounded,” he said.
Father Boyle, noting he “stands in awe” of the youth for all they have endured, said they are “trustworthy guides” who will help individuals serving them to be closer to God.
“I don’t think we are called to the margins to make a difference. You go to the margins so that the folks at the margins make you different,” Father Boyle said. “My life has been saved by showing up here, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Father Boyle said it is important to “stay anchored in the present moment,” to be attentive and let the youth know they are valued and that God loves them. One should assure them that they are “exactly what God had in mind when he made you.”
Father Putthoff said Hopeworks ‘N Camden is “all about evangelization.”
“It’s about being present at a place that seems broken,” he said.
“We don’t have Mass or confessions. We love people how they are and where they’re at,” Father Putthoff continued. “We’re a light, and we’re a light that spreads with each other.”