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By Colin A. Young

BOSTON, MAY 21, 2018.....Damion Johnson first got involved with a gang when he was 8 years old. By the time he was 13, he had an illegal gun of his own and would soon become a gunsmith for Western Massachusetts gangs. By 22, Johnson was in a prison cell on multiple illegal firearm charges.

Now 27 and out of prison, Johnson works as a youth mentor and was toasted by Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, other elected officials and police officials from across the state Monday morning as an example of the success of Roca, an organization that provides high-intensity programming for at-risk youth in Greater Boston and Springfield.

"The life of the streets and gangs are now in my rearview mirror. Even though they're always knocking, I know to keep my distance," he said at a fundraising breakfast at the InterContinental Boston. "The life of family and opportunities is my new horizon."

When he left prison, Johnson said he thought his felony criminal record would make it impossible to find work to support his two young children. Then a Roca worker knocked on his door and convinced him to join a work crew cleaning up city parks. Johnson credits Roca with his post-prison successes.

"Roca never gives up on you, even if you give up on them," he said.

Roca served 854 young men between ages 17 and 24 who had been "determined to be high-risk by validated criminal justice risk assessments and are not ready, willing, or able to participate in programs or jobs" during fiscal year 2017. After the program ended, 76 percent of those men held a job for three months or more and 84 percent of the participants had no new arrests.

Roca's high-risk young mothers program, which serves mothers aged 16 to 24 who "are facing multiple risk factors related to violence, trauma and instability," provided services to 200 mothers in fiscal 2017, the organization said. After the program, 93 percent of the women held a job for at least three months and 86 percent of them waited until they were at least 24 years old before having another child.

"Everybody Needs a Fan"

Molly Baldwin, who founded Roca 30 years ago and serves as its CEO, said Monday that the program succeeds because she and its youth workers are "a pain in the ass" about encouraging young people to engage with the program and learn from it.

"We have no illusions or expectations that it will be easy, but we know that we have to find a road with and for those young people to live, to stay safe and find hope," she said. "And we have to find a road with our law enforcement partners, government and community members where they too believe that these young people can change and live."

U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano said two-thirds of the students in his 10th-grade class did not make it to graduation, in some cases because they dropped out or became involved with criminal activity, and that "nobody" cared about those kids at that time.

"You can't make people make the right choices, that's not what Molly and Roca do," Capuano said. "But through their relentless effort, they prove that there is somebody who cares, somebody who will help you make a better choice if you want to."

Capuano said that if he was the president -- "I will make the official announcement, I am not running for president," he said Monday -- he would "make Molly Baldwin the secretary of education and the director of prisons in this country and put them together."

Baker, providing closing remarks on the second anniversary of his mother's death, talked about how his mom and dad were always there for him when he messed up and speculated that the great majority of the people in attendance Monday morning had "somebody there to help you play that hand."

"For a lot of the kids that we're talking about here, there isn't anybody there to help them play the hand," Baker said. He added, "Everybody needs a fan and kids, more importantly than anybody else, need a fan. And that's somebody who's just going to be there for them, who makes it possible for them to focus on growth and experience and try to be a better person and providing them with a role model who they can look up to."


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