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East Bay gunshot victim a success story for Sacramento intervention program

By: By Kim Minugh

Published: Sun, 07/17 @ 12:00AM

In an Oakland street, Maurice Stroud took a bullet to the chest and one to a knee. Then, as he fled his masked gunman, he took three more.

It was a Thursday afternoon. He was 19, and he wanted to die.

"I felt like I was, I dunno, just done for," Stroud, now 20, recalls. "No reason to live for."

He had been on his own since age 16, when the great aunt who cared for him died. Lost, he had become part of the ghetto she had pushed him to rise above. The shooting marked another rite of passage.

That was a little more than a year ago. Today, Stroud is enrolled in fall classes at Sacramento City College and studying to get his GED. He is a daily presence at Lord's Gym, where he shoots hoops with teens he hopes to inspire, and he is hunting for a job.

And for the first time since his auntie was alive, he entertains dreams of the future.

What made the difference, Stroud says, was the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program, an effort out of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento, aimed at rescuing young victims of violence.

Last summer, Stroud became SVIP's first client. Today, he is their first successful graduate.

During his 19-day stay in an Oakland hospital following the shooting, Stroud met a representative of Caught in the Crossfire, an anti-violence program that has inspired other models of hospital-based intervention, including SVIP.

Two days after being discharged, Stroud left the East Bay for Sacramento, where he had family. Here, he met Alicia Romero, SVIP's program coordinator, and soon had his own intervention specialist, DeAngelo Mack, who would become a mentor and close friend.

The transition into a new life was not easy. As his body healed, Stroud said, he lacked confidence and aspirations. But with a quicker-than-expected recovery, and Mack's guidance, Stroud came to believe in himself – and a future without violence.

The SVIP organizers "helped me not want to go back to that life … (and) to get my head straight," he said. "They gave me confidence that if I tell myself I can do it, I can do it. I need to be a stronger person, a wiser person."

It is hard to believe Stroud ever lacked confidence. At 6 feet and 181 pounds, he is muscular and athletic, with an infectious grin. He is boisterous, quick-witted and eager to be the center of attention.

But in his quieter, more reflective moments, Stroud allows glimpses into a changed man's mind.

During a session about jobs, SVIP's youths were asked to fill out a questionnaire to focus on suitable careers. Asked to share something he enjoys, Stroud read aloud from his sheet: "My life now."

Surprised, the facilitator asked what he enjoyed about his life.

"The situation I'm in," he said. "I don't have to watch over my shoulder or nothing."

The room fell silent for a moment, a few teens nodding their heads knowingly.

'It's up to you'

Upon opening their trauma center in south Sacramento in 2009, Kaiser Permanente officials sought a project to help prevent young victims of violence from rolling into their emergency room again and again.

Kaiser found a partner in The Effort Inc., a local nonprofit that offers social services for families – and SVIP was born.

The premise behind the program is that a hospital stay is a "teachable moment," when a vulnerable youth might consider for the first time the idea of a better life. Upon discharge, the clients are steered toward education, job training, drug treatment – whatever it takes to get them off the streets and integrated into society.

Initially, the patient and his family must pledge only not to retaliate. Later, they are expected to be willing participants in the program.

Caught in the Crossfire was the first model of so-called hospital-based intervention. Now, there are 16 such programs nationwide, said Anne Marks, executive director of Youth Alive! – a teen-focused nonprofit based in Oakland that started the Crossfire project.

In Sacramento, SVIP aims to work with victims 15 to 26 years old. Today, the program has 26 consistent clients, nearly all male.

The intervention typically begins within 12 hours of a young person's injury, when they are stable but presumably still shaken. If a patient consents to having his information shared with SVIP, Romero comes in. She is warm and charismatic.

"What do you need for you to stay out of trouble?" she asked one 18-year-old stabbing victim on a recent afternoon at Kaiser South.

She asks, knowing this is already his second traumatic injury. He had been shot a few years before.

"Keep my head in schoolbooks and out of the streets," he replied sheepishly. But when it came to accepting help, he was stone-faced.

"It's up to you," Romero shrugged. "I'm seeing you in a bed. You don't get to go home today, and I don't think you want back in here.

"This is your life."

The wake-up call

Stroud remembers this pitch. He was distrustful; disbelieving that anyone could understand his journey without having been in his shoes.

His mother was a drug addict; his father largely out of the picture. At one point, he went through five foster homes in three months – all before he was 10.

A social worker found his great aunt, who provided some welcome stability. Under her roof, Stroud brought home good grades and dreamed of being a star athlete who could whisk his auntie away from the 'hood.

Then, in 2005, his life began to crumble once more. For the first time in eight years, he saw his mother again – in a casket. About a year later, his elderly aunt passed away. After he had found solace in the streets, his little brother took a fatal bullet to the head. He lost two more close friends to violence.

Even after being shot, Stroud said, it took time for him to want help. Now, Romero enlists him in persuading others to embrace SVIP's services.

Recently, she told Stroud about a 19-year-old probationer who was skeptical of the program. Would Stroud talk to him?

"I don't mind, if he's willing to listen," Stroud said.

Much of the change SVIP seeks is borne of a daunting task: breaking a pattern of violence. The program's leaders see many teens who haven't been injured severely enough yet to hear the "wake-up call." For one young man, riddled by an AK-47, it finally came with the pain and embarrassment of a colostomy.

The more encouraging cases are those like 15-year-old D.J. Huston, for whom violence seemed almost fate.

Huston met Romero in January after he was stabbed in a dust-up that started with boys "mugging us, looking at us real hard," according to the teen. The knife came within a half-inch of his heart.

Huston was 8 when his father was shot to death at age 29, during a fight in Oak Park. Huston grew up in Meadowview, bouncing between apartments and friends' homes as his mother struggled to raise six children and attend school. The boy, like his father, liked to fight ("I just felt like it," he said) and got busted once for burglary.

After the stabbing, Huston said, he saw how "stupid" it all was. He began thinking of the future, of setting an example for the children he might one day have.

"I don't want the bad stuff that's happened to me to happen to my kids," he said. "If my dad was alive, he probably wouldn't want us doing the same thing, too."

Second chances

As intervention specialists, Duante Moore and Mack are social worker and teacher, counselor and friend.

Together with Romero, they make up the heart of SVIP, paid to work full time through grants from Kaiser.

Much of the work is not glamorous. They help with paperwork and parenting classes, and promote basic life skills, like being on time. They give a lot of rides.

Most of their wards have had little guidance in their lives. Stroud, for example, needs a driver's license but first must order a copy of his birth certificate, lost in the upheaval of his early life.

And before he can buy a car, he needs to save money. Mack helped him set up two bank accounts – one for saving, one for spending – and taught him how to transfer funds between the two. Keeping Stroud from burning his savings at McDonald's is still a work in progress.

And then there is the work of the heart.

In meeting Fernando Barajas III, Mack found a motivated young man. Before he was beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat – then stabbed five times in the back – Barajas, 20, was not in dire need of an intervention. He was enrolled at a skills center on Lemon Hill Avenue, on track to become a medical technician.

But his injury changed him. After nearly a month in the hospital, Barajas came home with a tube draining his pancreas and seemingly his motivation. Mack talked about school; Barajas was more interested in video games. He had lost focus.

"There was a period of time he just wanted to sit and be lazy. He thought he was entitled to," Mack said. "I did a lot of pushing."

With continued pressure from Mack, Barajas eventually finished his studies. He proudly attended a recent SVIP group session in scrubs, to the delight of his peers. He has an internship.

In their work, SVIP's leaders see a lot of anger. They see abuse, neglect, bad role models and bad decisions; poverty of the soul and of the wallet. And they see kids forced to grow up too fast.

"When you get them alone, they're children," Mack said. "Children who want a childhood."

A few months ago, Mack and Moore took the youths to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It was the first time Huston had been out of the Sacramento area. It also was the first time he had been to a museum, or seen a penguin. He was fascinated by butterflies in the indoor rain forest.

"They'll just let you touch them," he said, amazed. "They won't fly away or nothing."

SVIP's organizers are trying to cobble together money to take the group camping. It is a tall task – their clients do not have tents or backpacks or decent shoes for hiking – but the thought excites Romero.

Speaking of childhood, and life in general, she wonders aloud: "How many of our kids, because of our program, get that second chance?"

'Bad things happen'

SVIP's organizers might be optimistic, but they know the fragility of their efforts.

Several months ago, Stroud returned to Oakland for a funeral – and disappeared for about a month. Mack feared the worst: Even if Stroud could resist the temptations of his past, perhaps he could not outrun the ghosts.

Stroud returned unscathed. He continues to show his commitment to SVIP, making it to every gathering. He challenges his peers to do the same.

One day he called Mack, who heard unfamiliar noise in the background. Where are you, Mack asked. At Sacramento City College, Stroud replied, enrolling for the fall semester. Mack felt proud.

He is helping Stroud prepare for his GED exam, and took him to a Barnes & Noble bookstore to choose a novel to study. Stroud immediately picked up Harry Dolan's "Bad Things Happen."

"Like my life," he says.

But Stroud is not sullen, nor does he seek pity. During a recent break at the gym, Stroud instead reflected on his growth, his spiral into darkness and the man who helped pull him out.

When he was shot, he had no one. Now? "Well, I have D," he said, nodding to Mack. "He saved my life.

"Even when he's not around, I use his words of encouragement, and when I think of doing something that I shouldn't do, I'm like, 'Naw, What would D say? I'm going to go ahead, do it this way.' "

Today, Stroud is more concerned about having the hottest shoes on his feet than a gun on his hip. If he "grinds" anywhere, it's on the basketball court, not the street corner. And he has a message for kids living the life he once did.

"Playing with life," he said simply, "ain't all that."