01/06/2012 04:03 pm ET

Homeboy Industries: Turning Lives Around, One Gang Member At A Time

Soon after his father was murdered, 10-year-old Wilfredo Lopez started hanging out with neighborhood gangs. When he was 15, he was busted for selling drugs and spent the next decade in and out of jail. But last year, he made a fateful decision while sitting in his cell and reflecting on his six-month-old daughter.

"I was tired of doing the same thing over and over again," Lopez tells The Huffington Post. "My result was always four walls. I made a commitment that I wouldn't be like my father, that I was going to be present in my daughter's life."

To help him succeed on his future path of redemption, Lopez sought out a neighborhood priest from his past. Back when he was 12, he attended a mass performed by Father Greg Boyle, who gave the boy his card, telling Lopez, "Come see me when you're ready."

After years of strife, Lopez was ready. And the pastor had become a legend in California as the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the country. After Lopez reunited with Boyle, he worked a number of jobs at Homeboy, from maintenance worker to mental health assistant. He is now interested in getting a job as a domestic violence group facilitator. "I want to give back to the community that I helped destroy."

Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit with a $14 million budget, is one of the most prominent examples of private initiatives around the country that are performing essential functions long ago abandoned by the government. Over a thousand gang members are served every day by Homeboy, which has expanded over the last two decades into a social-service behemoth that includes a charter high school, job training facilities, tattoo removal and mental health services. It employs former gang members in its own bakery, cafe and diner.

Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles county are way down over the last two decades and Homeboy has won both praise and funding from government officials -- last June, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped launch the opening of a Homeboy Diner at City Hall. And the organization has inspired similar initiatives in San Francisco, Boston and Missouri.

It all started back in the late 1980s when Father Boyle got tired of performing funeral rites every few days. He was pastor of Dolores Mission in LA's Boyle Heights neighborhood, where gangs ran rampant and gunshots were background noise.

"There were eight gangs at war with each other on two public housing blocks. And I started burying kids in 1988," he recalls. "It began with starting a school. That brought gang members to the church and they said, 'If only we had jobs.' We tried to find felony-friendly employers and it was difficult so we took action, started a business -- a bakery -- and then a tortilla factory a month later."

Boyle added more services when he saw the need for them. "In 1990, a guy came in my office with a big 'Fuck the World' tattoo on his forehead and complaining that he couldn't find a job. I said, 'Where can I send you looking like that?' So he bagged bread in the bakery and I found a doctor who gave me one hour a month to help remove his tattoo. Pretty soon, I had a waiting list of 3,000 gang members and we opened a clinic with three laser machines. No place on the planet removes more tattoos than we do."

The work is an essential part of the re-entry process into society, explains Boyle. "The job does about 85 percent of what needs to be done. But we also offer a therapeutic community, we engage in what psychologists might call attachment repair, to help these kids re-identify who they are in the world and then they can go out into the world."

At the opening of Homeboy Diner in June 2011, Villaraigosa praised Boyle and the group for offering "second chances for a brighter future." That message of redemption could also apply to the businessman instrumental to launching the diner -- Bruce Karatz, the former chief executive of KB Home, who was convicted in April 2010 of felony charges related to the backdating of stock options.

Soon after reading about the non-profit's cash squeeze last year, Karatz volunteered his services to Homeboy, just a month after his conviction. In addition to the diner, he helped get Homeboy chips and salsa, dips and salad dressings into major supermarkets like Ralph's, recruited a CFO and spearheaded the opening of a bakery and cafe at the American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

"I just wanted to feel that I was doing something meaningful," Karatz says. "It made me feel good."

Homeboy is a community for these young men and women, says Carol Biondi, president of Homeboy. "It becomes a replacement for a gang." Back in the late 1990s, the situation was dire, especially for children and juveniles, she remembers. "There were 4,000 children in [LA County] facilities -- they had these camps where they kept 100 delinquent boys in one big Dickensian dorm," she says. "They were locking these kids in solitary confinement for not eating their vegetables."

In large part through the kind of work performed by Homeboy Industries, those numbers have been cut in half, and LA county's probation division was inspired to open its own re-entry centers for youth. But the government shouldn't depend on such private initiatives, argues Biondi.

"The government cannot just hand over what is unquestionably their responsibility," Biondi said, "the state and county should be doing this work."