Juan, in and out of detention centers since he was 10, recently remembered the feeling during his last stay. “I thought I’d never come out,” he said, his black hair gelled back into a thick, tight ponytail.
Two months ago, the 18-year-old was released from the Log Cabin Ranch, a residential transitional home for male juveniles in Half Moon Bay. But getting out was only half the battle.
Instead of a warm homecoming, returning to the Mission District left him “feeling like shit.” Then the volunteers who had been his only regular visitors in detention contacted him. Again, the Comunidad San Dimas leaders stepped in, inviting him into a group and giving him some new clothes. “They’ve been helping me not to go back to the street.”
Keeping kids off the street and turning lives around is what the volunteer-run Comunidad San Dimas is all about. But after spending several weeks talking to volunteers and young men, it’s clear that there’s no straight line to success. Life in the Mission District – life for many urban teenagers – is sometimes too complicated for even those with the best intentions.
A Catholic ecumenical community based out of St. Peter’s Church on 24th Street, you could say that Comunidad San Dimas began with a bang.
“Most churches only offer their religious services and they close the doors to youth at risk,” said Director Julio Escobar. That became impossible for St. Peter’s in 1992 when two men were shot within earshot of the church.
The late Father Jack Isaacs, along with neighbors Jenny and Nate Bacon, who worked for Innerchange, a Christian missionary order, decided the 106-year-old congregation of 1,200 had to do something.
With the arrival of the Sureño gang on Mission streets in the 1980’s, gangs formerly divided by street blocks began instead to divide by gang colors, police said. The Sureños claimed blue and the Norteños, red. Drug dealing shot up and violence did as well.
The Bacons and their volunteers found that if young men like Juan had any chance at all of staying out of trouble, they needed encouragement – plenty of it. That meant jobs, friends, a support group and a place to sleep.
“It takes doing different things that get them attached to us, dependent on us, instead of them being dependent on their gang,” explained Escobar. “We need to be as strong as the gang in terms of support and family membership.”
Visiting them in juvenile hall is a start. Offering aid when they get out also helps.
Volunteer San Dimas ministers, now some 50 strong, began to make themselves available 24-hours a day for court dates, job hunts, hospital visits, and family support.
A handful of San Dimas volunteers began to open their doors, and eventually the ministry created Casa San Dimas, a volunteer-run transitional home.
It too is run almost entirely by cash from volunteers’ pockets, along with a small amount of funding from an organization of doctors committed to violence prevention, according to Escobar.
Often one of the ways young men discover San Dimas is through support groups. At a recent Mission Dolores meeting, a mix of ten volunteers and youth sat in a circle.
One of them was Anthony, who has been involved with San Dimas for eight years. This time he brought along his baby girl and her mother.
“She’s going to be either a baby dog or a Toosie Roll for Halloween,” grinned Anthony as the group asked to hold the daughter, who has inherited her father’s dark brows.
As the group settled down, the missionaries asked participants to read through a Bible-related skit, but jokes came more easily than doctrine.
Escobar, the director for the last three years, said that religion often falls flat, but the youth can relate to the ministry’s namesake Saint Dimas, the good thief, who was crucified on Jesus’ right side.
Believers often pray to Dimas when they want to acknowledge wrongdoings and be forgiven.
“He’s not expecting you to repent, but to have a knowledge of what you’ve done,” said Anthony of San Dimas. “That’s good enough.
Back in the group, participants talked about their own demons.
“I feel like there’s a spirit lying on top of me when I sleep,” said Jesus, a baby-faced 19-year-old in a flat-brimmed Giants cap. It weighs me down, he said. “You can tell it’s there, but you can’t wake up.”
“I heard myself screaming but no one else heard me screaming,” said Anthony, recalling his own nightmares.
“It kept happening for months,” added Jesus. “Mom told me you’re not at peace. I tried to be a lot calmer now and it’s better.”
To combat his stress, Jesus said he tries to “read a book, draw, get away” and make time by himself.
Conversation then migrated into stereotypes and how hard it is to get a job as a Latino with tattoos, baggy pants, or both – descriptions that, to varying degrees, fit the majority of men in the room.
Escobar said that some of their best referrals come from kids in trouble who are leaders and draw others in.
When those volunteers actually come from within the gang community, said Escobar, San Dimas becomes that much stronger.
Something clicked. “He was trying to put positive things in his life with God,” said his best friend Agustin Dionicio, “even though his friends would laugh at him.”
When Serrano got out he encouraged other gang members to join the ministry, luring them in with talk about the private, family-style support as well as the bowling, camping, and baseball.
A year and a half later, Serrano was using a phone booth on Potrero Avenue when a car rolled past him and fired a single bullet that pierced the 19-year-old through the heart.
This reality is one that Escobar and other volunteers at San Dimas face every day.
Volunteer Juan Carlos Esteban remembers a 15-year old named Joker.
“Truly I felt like he was my little brother,” said Esteban who wears a beanie on the crown of his head above his ears, and works as a community coordinator. “Everybody left but he was the only one that was staying all the time over there.”
After a while, Esteban didn’t have access to a car to give Joker a ride home from the Mission Dolores group, so the kid stopped coming. A month later Joker started hanging out with the gang again, and before Esteban could do anything, Joker was killed.
“When you join something, you get used to something,” said Esteban. “You used to comb your hair this way all the time. If you’re going to change that it’s going to be really hard.”
But some kids stick around.
Dionicio, a broad-faced 28-year-old who spoke for nearly an hour at the September memorial for Serrano, is one of those. He was one of the 14 Norteños who showed up at San Dimas after Serrano’s death.
After the ceremony, Dionicio, tattoos poking out of his collar, said, “There’s a lot of guys who want to make the change. But when you’re around your friends you get a different kind of mentality. When you say something about church, a lot of friends don’t like that.”
Dionicio is one of the few of Serrano’s old friends who still attends San Dimas. He is writing a book that he hopes will explain to kids that living as a gangbanger is without glamour.
One of those who has learned that is Jesus, who found San Dimas about five years ago during a two-year placement in juvenile hall.
“At first I came to get a ride home,” said Jesus, now a student at City College. Eventually he went to listen, but most of the 30 or so others who started with him are back on the streets, in jail or have been deported.
“You have to be very patient because they’re going to step forward and they’re going to step back,” Esteban said.
Sometimes the Mission Dolores group has 20 kids, sometimes just one. Esteban has had youth come to the group on Thursday night, and by Sunday he’s visiting them in juvenile hall.
On a recent evening Juan, the young man released only two months earlier, was doing well. He hoped to stay away from his childhood pattern of getting into trouble. He had earned his G.E.D. and was looking for a job.
After the group at Mission Dolores, the volunteers and the youth piled into a minivan for a late night trip to play pool.
“I don’t want to go back,” Juan said before hopping into the van. “I’m trying to do what I was dreaming about in there.”