Diego felt caught between two worlds. His scholastic life offered hope and promise, but neighborhood gangs threatened to pull him into a world of violence and dead ends.
Walking that tightrope was a struggle. To maintain balance Diego leaned on his mother, the only positive force in his life. She worked two jobs—nights and weekends— so she could afford to send him to a good school.
Diego woke up every morning to an empty apartment—his mother already off to work. When he returned home from school, the apartment was still empty, with his mother working her evening shift at a candy factory.
Diego learned to cook simple meals, and often ate dinner alone. To give his mother some well-needed rest, he did house chores and always kept their apartment clean. All these adult responsibilities were a lot for a 14-year-old to handle, but he never complained.
“My mother sacrifices a lot for me, so I try and do what I can around the house,” he said.
Getting to school sometimes felt like walking through a battlefield. His mother didn’t own a car, so Diego walked a mile to the train station to begin his two-hour commute. But doing so meant crossing a gang territory border where both sides were often at war.
Diego avoided gang members hanging out on sidewalks by walking down the middle of the street. But eventually, they approached Diego and assured him they meant no harm.
“They offered to look out for me and make sure no one messed with me,” he said. “So, I started walking on the sidewalks.”
Diego didn’t realize it, but gangs commonly offered protection to school kids to recruit future members. Soon, Diego was on a first-name basis with them. They were friendly and made him feel safe. They even gave him a few dollars now and then to get snacks at the corner store.
Eventually, gang members started asking for small favors in exchange for their protection. The requests were simple at first, like keeping a lookout for police cars. But things escalated when they asked Diego to hold a paper bag full of cash overnight and return it in morning. It was a test of loyalty.
“There was more money in that bag than my mother made in a month,” Diego said. “I felt ashamed, so I stayed up until my mother got home and showed her. She was furious. She told me to give it back and never talk to those guys again.”
Diego returned the money and started walking down the middle of the street again on his way to school. When he ignored the gang members’ invitations to return, they took offense and issued veiled threats. We can’t protect you anymore. We know where you live. We know where your mother works.
Diego was terrified and couldn’t sleep at night. He didn’t tell his mom because he didn’t want to add to her burdens. He took alternate routes to school, which only added to his commute. He often fell asleep on the train. He started showing up late to class and stopped turning in homework.
His school counselor wanted to know what was going on, so she set up a meeting between Diego and his mother. There, Diego broke down and told them everything.
“I was tired of living in fear,” he said. “But what other options did I have? We couldn’t afford to move.”
Thankfully, his counselor told them about Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, and within a month, Diego moved in. Living in an unfamiliar environment was difficult at first. Diego was shy, quiet, and kept to himself. But slowly, he opened up and started to make friends. Best of all, his lurking sense of fear started to crumble away. For the first time in years, he felt at peace.
“Always having to look over my shoulder was exhausting,” he said. “At Mercy Home, I don’t have to worry. Here, I know who’s behind me—all these positive people who want to help. They have my back.”
Living at Mercy Home, Diego arrived at school on time. Our tutors helped him regain his academic standing. Now he’s on the honor roll and, for the first time, thinking about his future. For the time being, he’s gaining work experience at his part-time job at a museum.
Every weekend he visits his mother and cleans her apartment so it’s tidy when she returns home from work. If she gets home at a decent hour, they like to make popcorn and watch a movie.
As for the gang members in his neighborhood—they don’t even pay attention to him anymore.
“They prey on the weak, not the strong,” Diego said. “I’m in a better place these days. I have a purpose. I’m less vulnerable. I know where I’m going, thanks to Mercy Home.”
Please note: Because we care deeply about protecting our children’s privacy, the names and certain identifying details in this story have been changed.