Michael Gibson was well on his way to becoming another young man lost to the senseless violence on the streets of Oakland.
His mother had fallen into the grips of crack. As a little boy, he learned to tie off people's arms so they could shoot up heroin. At 12, he was arrested for selling drugs. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and started robbing businesses with a friend.
On one occasion his friend shot a police officer. Gibson, then 16, was sentenced to eight years in the California Youth Authority for robbery, possession of firearms and attempted murder on a police officer.
But this story has a very different ending than you probably expected.
Gibson, now 37, has a B.A. from Morehouse College, the prestigious, historically black, all-male school in Atlanta whose graduates include the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr., among others.
He is the program manager for the Alameda County Public Health Department's EMS Corps -- a six-month program that trains underrepresented minorities for careers as emergency medical technicians, firefighters and paramedics.
Gibson is now married and lives with his wife and 5-year-old son in San Francisco.
How did such a radical transformation occur in an individual who society had pretty much written off?
The Omega Boys Club threw Gibson a lifeline.
Gibson entered into the mentoring program that required him to do deep inner work, and that provided him with
He is one of the many success stories to come out of the Omega Boys Club ¿in San Francisco, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary Thursday.
The basis of the program cofounded by Dr. Joseph Marshall and Jack Jacqua, two former San Francisco public school teachers, is that street violence is a disease that must be treated like an illness if youth are to be "cured."
Students attend Tuesday evening straight-talk sessions where they are drilled in ways to identify and avoid the "risk factors" that make them more susceptible to succumbing to the disease of street violence.
"There's nothing wrong with the kids. They've just been infected with a strategy that they think is going to help them survive but that only ruins things not just for themselves but for everyone else," Marshall says. "It is the commandment of the streets, thou shalt be down for thy set, thy hood and thy crew."
Omega counselors work to help youth override that deeply ingrained destructive mentality and embrace a new, healthy lifestyle.
Marshall launched the program in 1987 after one of his more promising students dropped out of school to sell drugs and was soon killed in a turf war.
"It's hard to teach a kid math at 13, then go to his funeral at 19," Marshall says.
He decided he had to do something to stop his students from dying, ending up strung out on drugs or landing in prison.
That something was the Omega Boys Club.
There would be no sports or backpacking trips. Just deep inner work to get at the root issues behind the students' self-destructive behaviors.
Marshall promised to send anyone who finished high school or got their GED to college.
There was just one problem. Marshall had made the promise -- stepping out on faith -- but he had no money when the first group of students tried to cash in.
After a local television station aired a report about the program, the donations began pouring in.
To date, the Omega Boys Club has helped 176 boys -- and girls -- attend college. Many of their pictures in cap and gown adorn the walls of the club's San Francisco offices.
More than 10,000 have attended group counseling and tutoring sessions.
In 1994, Marshall was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. He has traveled around the country and the world training others in what he calls the "Alive & Free prescription."
We desperately need more programs like the Omega Boys Club that realize it takes more than opportunity and good intentions to truly make an impact in the lives of young people who have been severely traumatized by violence.