Bakery Run by Ex-Gang Members Reopens

In Los Angeles, a bakery run by former gang members has reopened nearly a decade after the original one was destroyed by fire. It's part of Homeboy Industries, a rehabilitation program headed by Father Gregory Boyle, who's worked with young people from more than 600 street gangs in Los Angeles.

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In Los Angeles, a bakery run by former gang members has reopened nearly a decade after it was destroyed by fire. It's part of Homeboy Industries. That's a rehabilitation program headed by Father Gregory Boyle, who's worked with young people from more than 600 L.A. street gangs.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: A mariachi band serenaded the crowd of Angelinos celebrating the new Homeboy Industries complex in downtown L.A. During yesterday's grand opening, polite ex-offenders and former gang members hobnobbed with L.A.'s police chief, the sheriff, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sampled delicacies at the Homegirl Cafe.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): I got me a taco. (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa says in a city of 39,000 gang members, the nonprofit center provides job training for those trying to escape the gang lifestyle.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: These are kids who are getting a second chance. They're getting the opportunity to develop the skills and an alternative to the life of crime and gangs.

DEL BARCO: With nearly $12.5 million in donations, Homeboy Industries now has a new building for its headquarters, including the cafe and merchandise store, a tattoo removal clinic; also a new bakery, after the original one burned down in an electrical fire eight years ago.

Father GREGORY BOYLE (Founder, Homeboy Industries): We ask you to bless this building, which has a strong spirit so that we will learn to fly...

DEL BARCO: Father Greg Boyle, Father G, or just G, as he's affectionately known, prayed for the new headquarters before ceremonially breaking bread baked by the homeboys. Twenty years ago, the Jesuit priest created Homeboy Industries to help those who were rejected by society.

Father BOYLE: You know, this is part of a smart response to the gang reality. But in the early days, that was a tougher sell because the demonizing was so complete. Twenty years ago, we got death threats, bomb threats, and hate mail.

DEL BARCO: Father Boyle says he no longer hears much from critics who accuse him of harboring criminals. In fact, he gets much love from city officials, police, and thousands of homeboys and homegirls he's counseled and trained over the years. Take Marcus Luna(ph), who got out of prison three months ago. The 35-year-old is covered head to toe with gang tattoos, which made it hard to get hired before now.

Mr. MARCUS LUNA: If they see a tattoo on you or something, they think you're violent. Father gives you the benefit of the doubt.

DEL BARCO: Luna says kneading and baking bread has taught him a new way of thinking.

Mr. LUNA: I learned to be patient. It's like a meditation or something.

DEL BARCO: Another baker, Erik Joshua(ph), says he's changed from how he used to roll in South Central L.A.

Mr. ERIK JOSHUA: Selling crack, that was my life. Instead of planning dough I was planning baking soda, you know what I mean?

Unidentified Man: You were baking cocaine.

Mr. JOSHUA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Joshua says it's not easy to break away from the gangs that claim you as family. But like him, 15-year-old Marylyn Villanueva(ph) now works side by side with her former rival.

Ms. MARYLYN VILLANUEVA: (Unintelligible) when I came in here with a little attitude of not caring and everything.

DEL BARCO: And then how did that change?

Ms. VILLANUEVA: (Unintelligible) and everything was set aside. Now I'm moving on, you know, and I (unintelligible) I grew attached to them, so I'm making a change and I owe it all to Father Greg, and I'm really thankful.

DEL BARCO: L.A.'s homeboys and homegirls often like to quote Father Boyle, who says nothing stops a bullet like a job.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

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