Edwin Galvan still doesn’t know why he ended up with a bullet hole and nerve damage in his left arm.
He didn’t have any ties with gangs — perhaps the masked shooter mistook him for someone else when he squeezed off three rounds at the 17-year-old as he walked into his cousin’s garage in the east Oakland neighborhood where they both lived.
What Galvan does know is that the hand a stranger from an Oakland nonprofit extended at his hospital bedside to get him back on his feet led to the Fremont High School graduate interning for the organization, which is dedicated to combating gun violence among the city’s young people.
“I want to make sure that everything I do is for the betterment of society,” said the Oakland native, now 19.
Established in 1991, Youth ALIVE! provides a wealth of services designed to prevent and reduce the incidence of violence as well as help traumatized victims heal.
The nonprofit faces monumental challenges carrying out that mission, however.
“Violence in Oakland … is a chronic condition,” said Youth ALIVE! Executive Director Joseph Griffin, adding that there are a variety of factors at play.
For some youth, violence has become the norm in responding to stress, he said. Others strike out in desperation because they can’t afford basic needs such as food and housing. And as communities become more dangerous, businesses disappear along with the jobs they provide, which only increases the likelihood of crime, Griffin said.
Nonetheless, Youth ALIVE! is attacking the problem on multiple fronts with services that are eminently practical.
One is an after-school school curriculum that helps teens understand the roots of violence.
The outreach known as Teens on Target has students from three of Oakland Unified School District’s high schools teaching middle-schoolers, who are more likely to accept information when it comes from someone closer to their age, said Teens on Target Program Manager MaryAnn Alvarado.
Over the course of the 2022-23 school year, 91 high schoolers led 114 meetings at nine middle schools, 42 more than the previous school year.
The weekly lessons cover a broad array of topics over the six-week sessions, including how social media posts can incite fights on campus, the ways that guns end up in a community, and the reasons people join gangs — as well as the danger that comes with membership because they now are a target for rival groups.
Middle schoolers learn to recognize peer pressure and share what it feels like being on the receiving end, which releases pent-up stress that otherwise could explode in violence, Alvarado said.
In addition, students discuss the characteristics of abusive relationships and the hallmarks of healthy ones; many youngsters only realize that neglect isn’t the norm after joining Teens on Target, Alvarado said.
“They start a healing journey when they’re learning from us,” she said.
Youth ALIVE! also uses “violence interrupters” to defuse tensions when conflict arises on school campuses and the streets.
Antoine Towers oversees two of these mediators who try to keep the peace at four high schools — or at least stop arguments from escalating.
When trouble is brewing, school employees and students themselves can contact Towers and his team, who will try to open the lines of communication between the warring factions and resolve disputes.
Most of the kids he deals with are very defensive, which makes them more likely to go on the attack if they feel threatened, Towers said.
“It’s them against the world.”
Changing that mindset requires showing them that an empathetic adult is available when they’re in a jam, Towers said.
He and other violence interrupters also respond to clashes around the city. They mediated 113 conflicts during the first five months of this year, most in East Oakland.
Let’s talk about it
Violence can leave more than physical scars — it inflicts psychological damage as well.
For the past 11 years, Youth ALIVE! has provided counseling not just to individuals who have been shot, stabbed, or lost loved ones in violent attacks, but to perpetrators.
They, too, have been wounded at some point, said healing director Nicky MacCallum, noting that violence begets violence when victims retaliate.
“They’re all hurt,” she said, adding that incarceration is also traumatic.
MacCallum’s three counselors served 41 clients from January through May, meeting them anywhere they felt safe — at their home, a coffee shop, their church — and the free sessions are available for as long as they want them.
She also oversees the Khadafy Washington Project, which offers a monthly support group run by and for parents who have lost a child.
That same arm of Youth ALIVE! provides families with emotional support every step of the way in the wake of a death, being on hand as they fill out forms for the state’s victim compensation program, talking with the coroner on their behalf, and accompanying them to funeral homes to ensure the memorial services reflect their religious beliefs.
Is it possible for clients to find complete healing with counseling? Given the toxic environment that Oakland’s violence has created, maybe not, MacCallum said.
The focus of her work is enabling people to find ways of coping with their surroundings, she said.
And yet there are success stories: Counselors have seen juvenile offenders complete probation, graduate from high school, finish college or trade school and land a job.
MacCallum personally has known former clients who started a family and are raising their children differently from the way they were brought up.
Youth ALIVE! is credited with adopting the first hospital-based violence prevention strategy in the United States. Since the organization’s inception, its Caught in the Crossfire staffers have been visiting the injured while they’re still in the hospital to help them put their lives back together.
“This might be the one time a young person is open to getting support,” Griffin said, explaining that inner-city teens often feel that institutions such as health care and education have failed them and consequently distrust individuals they don’t know who approach them when they’re in a vulnerable situation.
These Youth ALIVE! representatives are seen as “credible messengers” because they are well acquainted with the tough neighborhoods where these kids live and thus more likely to have their ear, he said.
CiC put Galvan in touch with a case manager who helped him find other work when his injuries prevented him from returning to his job as a shoe salesman. She also coached Galvan as he applied for state funds that reimburse victims for medical bills and other crime-related expenses.
Do patients need a ride to a rehabilitation appointment? CiC will step in.
Have they considered mental health services? CiC can hook them up with Youth ALIVE!’s in-house counselors.
Do victims feel safe returning to school? Or would they prefer that CiC point them to other ways they can continue their education?
By meeting the immediate needs of young people who have been caught up in Oakland’s violence while it strives to identify and prevent the causes of this unrest, Griffin is confident that Youth ALIVE! can make the city safer.
“If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be here. I have to believe it,” he said. “I know it’s not going to be easy, (but) I definitely didn’t take this role to roll with the status quo.”
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