You could have heard a pin drop as the first Phoenix House student began to speak. Surrounded by over 50 community members of the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs, on Thursday, April 5th, 2012, three young men from Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles faced a room full of community members and uniformed Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers deeply interested in their individual stories. The monthly meetings of the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs – a coalition of LAPD command staff, Probation and LAUSD representatives, and their community partners – have been taking place since 2001. The Coalition focuses on building a San Fernando Valley that is a safe, strong, healthy and thriving place for children and families and is free from gang violence.
When the panel of students from Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles was introduced, the young men stood one by one and quietly related their individual stories: how they each fell into the pattern of substance abuse and gang involvement, their struggles with family and school, and their individual experiences with the penal system. At that point, the panel was opened to questions from the coalition:
- What is a day at Phoenix House like?
- Was there anything the community could have done sooner, which might have changed the choices you made?
- What might have helped keep you in school?
- What can the community do for you now?
- Who – and what – will help you stay clean and focused on your new path when you return to society?
Their answers were as unique as their stories, injected with humor, earnestness, and a sobering maturity. Creativity (art classes, drawing and writing) played a prominent place in their answers – both as something they would like to see more of in school, and as something that has helped them in recovery.
One young man mentioned the new “Metamorphosis” wall mural in Lake View Terrace, painted by residents in coordination with Create Now. “It’s about metamorphosis, a caterpillar turning into a butterfly…how something can change from one thing and grow into something else, a new beginning. That’s something we can all identify with.”When it came to questions about their future (what would keep them focused on sobriety and living clean), they had a variety of answers: faith, family and fatherhood; earning responsibility and respect; getting themselves out of the system; earning their diplomas and finding good, well-paying jobs.
When asked if he liked living at Phoenix House, one young man earned a laugh when he offered his answer:
“Well, I’m not gonna lie, when I first got there, all I wanted to do was leave. But eventually I figured out they were there to help me, and was I going to help myself or not? Now, we’re like a family. I know everyone on the unit, they’re my friends, we help each other out. It can be the best place in the world or the worst place in the world… this place is what you make it.“