Staying Off the Streets and Getting Into the Classroom
Carlos L., 22, is an advocate for youth violence prevention. He participates in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) in Holyoke, MA, and is working toward his high school equivalency. We spoke with Carlos about his efforts to make positive changes in his life and the lives of others.
Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Carlos. I’m 22 years old and I am currently involved in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) in Holyoke, MA. I’m working toward my High School Equivalency and am passionate about helping other youth stay in school and preventing youth violence in my community.
What were your experiences growing up prior to joining the SSYI program?
When I was young, my family moved to a bad neighborhood. After moving to the ghetto, I started selling drugs and doing stupid stuff like that. My mom used to give me 20 bucks for the month, but everyone was dressing nice, had the right clothes and sneakers and I wanted to be like that. For the money — that’s why I got into the streets. I started selling drugs when I was 11 years old. I got kicked out of school — kicked out of the system. I never passed 9th grade.
Basically, I had bad friends and hung out with a bad crowd. I’ve seen dead people on the floor… a lot of crazy stuff. My little brother and father were killed. My father was in a standoff with the cops and was shot. My little brother got murdered by gang members. I got in a fight and beat up a guy and then got jumped by gang members. I was unconscious on the floor and my brother went in to save me and they shot him. He was only 16 at the time — I was 18. This made me want to change. I want to spend time with my whole family during the holidays, but I can’t because my little brother is in ashes and my father is buried in the ground.
How and why did you change your life?
I started thinking about change at 18 when my brother died, but I didn’t do anything drastic until I was 20. I got into trouble and was looking at 5 years in jail. It opened my eyes. I have two kids and I knew if I kept doing bad stuff I’d have a bad future and would not be able to raise my kids. I left the streets because I wanted to raise my kids. At the same time, I had a friend who was working at SSYI. I started going to the program and have been going every day since. I’ve been off the streets for a year.
What positive changes are you making in your life?
When I first got involved in SSYI, I didn’t know how to read or nothing. I couldn’t learn in school in a big class. Growing up I had probation twice and was smoking angel dust. It kills your brain cells and messed up my ability to learn. I basically had to learn everything again, but I caught up fast and started to remember stuff I used to do in school.
Through SSYI, I’m working on my high school education and going to workshops that help youth talk to other people. Growing up in the streets all you know how to do is swear, make jokes and hassle people. I had to learn how to talk and behave in interviews, how to approach others properly. I work in the program rebuilding and refurbishing old furniture and am going on job interviews.
I’ve also started getting involved in advocacy. I’ve been to the state government in Boston twice and have met with the Governor. When I meet with lawmakers, I talk about what I went through in life and how important the SSYI program is. It feels like another home. They give young people a lot of support and push youth to get them where they want to go. They show youth how to do it right. I like that I’m getting heard. Now that I’m getting the hang of advocacy, I’ve become passionate about it.
What advice do you give others in your advocacy work?
My advice is to stay in school, do what you have to do to get an education. Don’t go after the quick dollars that come from doing bad things, the cops catch onto you fast. It’s not a life you want to live. Be determined to do something and put your mind to getting it done. I don’t want anyone to give up. Don’t give up to the streets. Don’t give up to drugs. Go to school and do good and everything else will come to you. "Take advantage of all the opportunities given to you."
What do you look forward to in the future?
I want to complete my high school education, go to college and continue to study and learn. I want the same chance as everyone else to get a good job.