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Nonprofit Prepares Former Gang Members for Successful Career

By Denis Grasska

SANTEE — Joe Gilbreath was already actively involved with Kairos Prison Ministry when he attended a talk by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle.

He listened with interest as the founder of Homeboy Industries, a successful gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in Los Angeles, discussed his work.

Catching up with Father Boyle at the end of the talk, Gilbreath asked if anything like Homeboy Industries existed in the San Diego area. The priest replied, “No. Why don’t you start one?”

That same day, Gilbreath said, he and a group of friends began “kicking that idea around.” They ultimately decided to accept Father Boyle’s challenge, and the result was Rise Up Industries.

“Our mission is to minimize street gang activity in San Diego by providing integrated gang prevention, gang intervention and post-detention re-entry services for former gang-involved individuals,” explained Gilbreath, president of Rise Up Industries.

That mission is still a work in progress.

Gilbreath explained that, after the nonprofit received its 501(c)(3) status in late 2014, the decision was made to start with the re-entry program. The idea was that the program’s participants would be “an older population, a little bit more mature and ready to make life changes.” Successful graduates of that program could then serve as inspirational speakers and role models for the youth who would participate in the gang prevention and intervention programs.

The prevention program, which will focus on at-risk youth ages 10 to 18, is scheduled to launch in 2023. The intervention program, which will target current gang members who want to step away from that life but aren’t sure how to do it, will follow at a still to be determined date.

The 18-month re-entry program is based at Rise Up Industries’ machine shop, which opened in March 2016 in Santee. Former inmates work 40 hours a week, receiving on-the-job training for a future career as a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machine operator. Using computer-programmed machinery, they drill, cut and shape materials ranging from bicycle parts to subcomponents for the aerospace industry.

“This career is well-paying and it’s in extremely high demand,” Gilbreath said. “So, getting them placed [in jobs after graduation] is not going to be a problem.”

However, technical skills mean little if an employee has a bad attitude or poor work ethic, Gilbreath said. So, Rise Up Industries also works on that aspect of the men’s lives.

It does this by providing the program’s participants with a mentor, a case manager and a counselor; hosting a Friday book club; regularly quizzing the men on Rise Up Industries’ Core Values and the “work ethics” posted on each of the shop’s five CNC machines; and giving them a weekly performance review.

Gilbreath said the program currently has a waitlist, and there’s a stack of letters on his desk from current inmates interested in joining once they are released. Though there are currently seven participants, the program has capacity for 12. He said they are working to reach that number and, by 2023, to double their enrollment to 24.

The machine shop is one of Rise Up Industries’ three “social enterprises.” The nonprofit also operates a purchasing program for individuals, churches and other organizations interested in ordering specialty coffee on a regular basis, as well as a screen printing and embroidery program that produces shirts for organizations and their special events. The net proceeds from both provide financial support for Rise Up Industries’ mission.

Gilbreath admits that the directors of Rise Up Industries were initially concerned that former gang members and prison inmates, some of whom had received life sentences, would not “tug on people’s heartstrings” enough to inspire donations to the program.

But, having heard many inmates’ stories firsthand during the course of his prison ministry, Gilbreath empathizes with them. He tends to believe that many of them never had “a fair chance,” given their difficult childhoods and the environments in which they grew up.

After hearing an inmate’s story, Gilbreath said, he and his fellow prison ministers often thought, “If I grew up in that guy’s home, in his neighborhood, I’d be his cellmate today.”

Each of the seven men currently participating in the re-entry program have their own stories of how they came to be involved with gangs and how that involvement resulted in lengthy prison sentences.

For Manuel Chavez, joining a gang was simply “a rite of passage.”

“It wasn’t something that I had to go seek; it was right at my front door,” said the 40-year-old, who hails from Redlands, California.

His grandfather and father had gone to prison in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively. By the time he was 13 years old, Chavez himself had already embraced the gang life.

“I probably wasn’t even a gang member more than three or four months, and I was already in juvenile hall on gun charges [and for] stealing cars,” he said.

At age 16, Chavez was charged with eight armed robberies, attempted murder and murder. He spent 22 years in prison. Paroled in March 2017, he met two Rise Up Industries participants while living in transitional housing after his release. He had been interested in finding a job to make money, but they were embarking on a career path. He soon followed their lead.

“I needed a career and RUI has provided that freely,” said Chavez, who entered the program last October. “They made it their mission to reach out to people like me.”

Joe Tapia, 55, grew up in a “dysfunctional home” headed by an abusive, alcoholic father. As a minority student in a predominantly white district in Palm Springs, he was also bullied at school. Pent-up anger and a desire for acceptance inspired him to join a gang.

Tapia, who was released from prison in September 2017 after serving 32 years and 10 months of a life sentence for murder and robbery, was interested in Rise Up Industries, but he also seriously considered leaving the San Diego area and moving in with family.

It was a tough choice, but the thing that “tipped the scales in Rise Up’s favor,” he said, was its tattoo-removal program, which helps former inmates rid themselves of their gang tattoos.

“I couldn’t reinvent myself with all of this ink on me,” he said, “and I just wanted to have a fair chance.”

Since entering Rise Up Industries’ program in early November 2017, he has found a family-like atmosphere at the machine shop. He said he is “surrounded by people with similar experiences” and works under the direction of people who know his background and support his efforts to make a fresh start in life.

Ernest Garcia, 46, grew up in a “nuclear family” in Pomona, with two parents and four younger siblings. There were gang members on both sides of his family, but neither of his parents had gang ties. His family life began a downward spiral when he was a pre-teen. His mother was struggling with mental illness, his father resorted to heavy drinking as a coping mechanism, and Garcia just wanted out.

“I think I embraced the violence, even the harm that came to myself, because I just didn’t want to face what was going on in my home at the time,” said Garcia, explaining why he joined a gang.

At age 17, he was sentenced to 75 years to life for the murders of three rival gang members. Once in prison, he got involved with prison gangs and, because of his continued violent behavior, he spent 18 years in solitary confinement. He began to seriously reevaluate his life in 2008 and abandoned gangs entirely in 2011.

Following his release from prison in late December 2017, Garcia was making good money working in construction. A friend who lived across the street from the construction site and would see him every day was working at Rise Up Industries’ machine shop and encouraged him to join as well.

At first, Garcia wasn’t interested because he would be trading good pay for a minimum-wage job. But his friend convinced him that Rise Up Industries would put him on a career path.

“When I came, it almost seemed too good [to be true] because people were real friendly. They smiled,” said Garcia, who joined the program in late February 2018.

Because of his supportive supervisors, Garcia said he can imagine himself running his own machine shop someday.

“By the grace of God, I was given a second chance,” he said.

For more information, visit www.riseupin dustries.org. The book Writing After Life: Stories from Those Who Served a Life Sentence features the first-person accounts of four Rise Up Industries participants, including Garcia and Tapia, who are former “lifers.” All net proceeds from the book, which was edited by Leslie A. Willis and published last year, will be donated to Rise Up Industries.

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