In parts of Prichard, Ala., children walk through broken glass and debris in bare feet. The roads, some unpaved, flood in the rain. Violence is pervasive. Young people call the community "Death Valley."
Three years ago, John Eads, whose organization Light of the Village works with at-risk youths in Prichard, invited Father Greg Boyle to see for himself. Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles gang intervention and prevention program, was shocked by the poverty and despair.
"In this country," he said, "I've never seen anything quite like it. It was pretty raw."
From that first visit, a relationship developed. Former gang members from Los Angeles have made numerous trips to Alabama to try to steer young people away from the gang life. To the Homeboy emissaries, some of whom grew up in L.A.'s roughest neighborhoods, the poverty seemed overwhelming. But the day-to-day life was familiar: drug dealers, shootings, dead-end choices, fear.
"In reality these kids are us. . . . It's exactly the same thing," Agustin Lizama said. "The way we were raised, the family structures."
Lizama lost his hand in a drive-by shooting when he was 12 and spent more than a decade in a gang. He went straight four years ago and was hired as a clerk at Homeboy Industries.
Lizama has been to Alabama eight times, bringing different co-workers with him on each visit. The young people they counsel recognize themselves in the reformed gangbangers.
"They grew up through a lot of struggles. Their memories are similar to our memories," said Demetreus Davis, 14, "because we feel the same thing."
In helping children 2,000 miles away, the visitors from L.A. say they have captured moments of lost innocence. For Lizama, who delights in arts and crafts projects, the gang intervention work in Alabama is "bringing out that inner child in me that I was never able to bring out."
The lessons ultimately transcend place, ethnicity and age.
"Do they know how to make relationships? Do they know how to communicate? Do they know how to keep a friend?" said Luis Colocio, who made his first trip to Alabama this year. "Or are they going to hate and murder?"
The work, he said, is one way for the L.A. Homeboys to make amends.
"So much damage that we did out there on the streets," he said. "Give back, and what you get in return is great smiles and people that feel your heart and feel your pain, you know, and you in return [feel] theirs."