Special Report

OAKLAND -- More than most, the teachers and students at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience know the agony of Oakland's violent streets, which claimed 110 lives last year.

In November, students were told during class that a recent graduate, Luis Garibay-Ornelas, had been shot to death outside a friend's house. Then in December, the younger brother of a Life Academy student was shot and killed on International Boulevard.

Julio Magaña knew something had to be done quickly at the small, 275-student school in Oakland's Fruitvale district. He came up with an idea that would help students channel their grief into a cause: fasting, one day at a time, in an effort to raise awareness about the violence in their community.

"The school was kind of paralyzed" after the killings, said Magaña, whose work at Life Academy is funded through the community nonprofit Alternatives in Action. "Teachers like me said we can't just move on; we need to acknowledge that these kids had been killed and that something had to be done about it."

From those modest beginnings, the memorial fasting has spread to a half-dozen schools and hundreds of kids. Most importantly, it has helped the students at Life Academy shed their feelings of powerlessness in the wake of tragedies they can't control.

"We wanted to show that the youth do care, that we're tired of having our best friends die," sophomore Christian Cox-Diaz said.

When Garibay-Ornelas was shot to death Nov. 6, he became the school's fifth current or former student to be killed since 2005, joining Raymen Justice, Jose Rocha, Nancy Nguyen and Marco Casillas.

But that wasn't the end of the heartbreak. Just weeks after Garibay-Ornelas' death, a gunman shot and killed 5-year-old Gabriel Martinez Jr., the younger brother of Life Academy junior Gabby Martinez.

Eva Oliver, a rookie teacher who was helping out a substitute when the principal told the class about Garibay-Ornelas, saw the face of heartache.

"I just sat and watched the kids' faces," Oliver said. "There were students who went straight to tears, students who went into deep shock and students whose faces went cold. I didn't know what to do."

Magaña, who supervises a boy's round-table group at the school, decided to take a page from Cesar Chavez and Gandhi -- he proposed that students and teachers take turns fasting to show that they were willing to make sacrifices to bring peace to Oakland streets.

The boys group and a corresponding girls group, led by Oliver, took the lead. For 74 straight days, from Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Cesar Chavez Day in March, at least one student or teacher from Life Academy went 24 hours without food.

In all, more than 200 people, including students at six schools, fasted, and more than 1,000 people signed a corresponding peace pledge.

Fasting for peace

The fasts began and ended every day at 12:30 p.m. Students from the boys and girls groups would gather in a circle to recite a peace pledge and commemorate the school's fallen youths. The last day's faster would then get an apple to break the fast, while the new faster was given an arm band to wear during the fast.

The armband meant that for better or worse everyone in school knew who was fasting. Fasters got support from some classmates, but they also got plenty of teasing or outright hostility. Edwin Roque, a sophomore, said students mocked him or put food in his face.

Occasionally hecklers taunted the students while they huddled together during the lunchtime ceremony.

Linda Alecio said one girl laughed at her when she tried to explain why she was fasting, but that her fast was empowering nonetheless. "I felt like I was doing something good to get revenge for what they did to (Garibay-Ornelas)."

Growing support

Several students spread the word to other schools about what they were doing. The Bay Area School of Enterprise, an Alternatives in Action-affiliated high school in Alameda that is home to many Oakland students, also united for weeks of fasting. After Life Academy students visited Skyline and McClymonds high schools in Oakland, students there took turns fasting for one school week.

"What got me was that they were actually taking initiative," said Eddie Chao, a Skyline junior who helped organize the fast. "Everybody is aware of the violence in Oakland, but they were doing something very personal to try to stop it."

Several students said their parents or grandparents fasted along with them. Life Academy sophomore Ashley Hunter said several members of her church also fasted in solidarity.

About 60 people fasted on the project's 74th and final day, including Oakland Councilwoman Desley Brooks and Gabby Martinez, who often spent lunch at a table within earshot of the fasters' lunchtime circle.

"I'd sometimes look over at her and wonder if she approved," Magaña said. "Every day, we said her brother's name out loud. I hoped in her heart of hearts she knew that at least we were not forgetting about him."

Also present for the final fast were the parents of several slain students, including Julia Perez, whose son Eric Toscano, a Skyline student, was killed in a drive-by shooting two years ago.

"I really admired them fasting," she said. "All these kids coming together to support parents like us, I wish it would have been bigger than it was."

Future plans

Magaña and the students called their project Season of Peace Building.

The name reflected their feeling that while they couldn't immediately halt the indiscriminate violence that claimed 5-year-old Gabriel, Garibay-Ornelas and so many other Oakland youths, their dedication over time could make Oakland a more peaceful city.

"I think it was important to let people know that we will sacrifice to make peace in our communities," Life Academy senior Ricardo Sevilla said.

Magaña said the effort helped bring together students and teachers and humanize the campus. "These kids, they're not going to be the kids that do the violence," he said.

Magaña is planning on doing something similar next year and hoping that the campus and the city take one more step away from the path of violence.

"Peace is not an immediate thing," he said. "It's a process and it takes a long time."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435