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Service as Self-Awareness: My Immersion Trip to Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles

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“Back when I was young,” Anthony said wistfully as he looked out onto the crowd, “many of my friends and I got drawn into gang violence, which made us all drop out of school. Gang violence back then seemed like a better option for me because I could make money. I thought that learning at school wouldn’t do me any good.”
I was shocked when I first heard Anthony share his story about growing up surrounded by friends joining gangs. Not only was I shielded from daily concerns about gang violence for most of my life, but I couldn’t see any evidence of Anthony’s traumatic past at the silkscreen factory where we listened to his presentation.
With the help of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides education, counseling, and rehabilitation services to former gang members and incarcerated individuals, Anthony was able to turn his life around and build a new future. According to Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a single belief guides the organization’s mission: with enough hope and love, people always have the power to become better versions of themselves. While I was expecting to learn about the Homeboy community and participate in service, I didn’t know that this idea would change the way I understand myself and the world around me.
During my recent spring break, I chose to participate in a service immersion trip to learn about the social impact of Homeboy Industries throughout the Los Angeles region. With each story I heard, I became more and more impressed by people’s achievements in the face of intimidating obstacles. Whether it was Welman’s story about walking to the Homeboy Industries office after getting out of prison, Hector’s description of the bullet holes that were on some of the street signs near where we were staying, or personal stories from employees at a local diner called Homegirl Cafe, it became clear that it was possible to make personal transformations despite past incarceration.
At the Homeboy Art Academy, a place that uses art to heal and transform formerly incarcerated individuals, I was lucky enough to participate in a community circle, which was a powerfully reflective experience where many people opened up to the group about what shaped their identity. Many participants shared that they wouldn’t be who they were without the mix of positive and negative experiences from growing up in their hometown. Fabian, the leader of Homeboy Art Academy, explained how he was drawn into gangs at an early age, as he felt gangs would help more than school ever could. Eventually, after getting released from prison, Fabian returned to school to receive his high school diploma at the age of 40. Homeboy Industries provided the structure and direction that empowered Fabian and allowed him to nurture his passion for art.
My experience visiting Homeboy Industries helped me shift my perspective on authenticity, adversity, and friendship. First, listening to the raw truth that people shared made it clear that offering a transparent and genuine story is crucial to establishing connections between people. I admit to not opening myself up as much as I could, but changing this habit might help others understand me on a deeper level. Second, from hearing such traumatic stories about loss and struggle, I realized how grateful I was for having loving family members in my life. More aware of the many forces that shape a person’s identity, I recognize the abundance of opportunities that come from living a life without danger. Third, although I was just visiting the organization for one week, each participant welcomed me and tried to build a meaningful connection. I would like to pay this kindness forward by being more friendly and inclusive at school to help everyone feel accepted.
Overall, I feel grateful for the opportunity to not only develop a firsthand understanding of the struggles faced by the many individuals in Homeboy, but also better understand the context surrounding my own life perspective.

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