ORLANDO, FLA. — For a few moments look away from the tragic shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and listen to Jeremy Estrada's extraordinary story of triumph.
Here at the 25th National Conference on Juvenile Justice, as the stocky young man in a suit walked back and forth across a platform sharing his story, you could have heard a pin drop. His voice was steady, understated, like a veteran sharing war stories.
And the audience of 1,000 juvenile judges, prosecutors, probation officers, and youth workers have seen and heard it all when it comes to troubled kids. When Estrada finished, they stood and applauded.
"I grew up in the projects in East LA, a place with the highest gang concentration in the country," Estrada says. "My father sold heroin out of the house, and my mother was addicted to heroin.... At age 3 or 4, I was living on my own, staying out all hours of the night with friends.
"I was never comfortable going home because my father was always upset, kicking me and my younger brother. I had a younger sister who died of heroin because of heroin from my mother.... Eventually, my father left and I had to raise my brother.
"When I was 10, my Mom would leave sometimes for two or three weeks at a time, and I had to feed my brother and pay the bills.... I would get money any way I could.
"Glenn was my best friend, four years older than me. He was in a gang, and always there for me like family when there was no food in the house.
"One time we were out walking past the projects.... A car stops and guys jump out (with knives) and they grab Glenn, stabbing him, and I start kicking and screaming because the guy who raised me is getting stabbed ... I get stabbed but I don't feel it.
"A woman nearby comes out and shoots a gun in the air, and the other guys take off, and I'm holding Glenn in my arms, just a 12-year-old kid holding his best friend as the paramedics arrive, but he doesn't make it."
From then on the forces that shaped Estrada are all too familiar for many inner-city children in LA. "My heart was hardened," he says.
According to Sgt. Arthur Reyna, who heads a street-gang unit for the Los Angeles Police Department, Estrada's life is unusual only in degree.
"He's talking about the ultimate worst that can happen to a kid," Mr. Reyna says. "It may not be the norm to the degree that [Estrada] experienced, but it's nothing astonishing here.... It's just a way of life."
Hatred built up in Estrada because he was alone and unsupervised, and no adults were concerned about him. And he had lost his best friend. "There was no adult there to help me," he says. "Not a single adult anywhere down the line."
He says, "Nobody starts off as a cold-blooded killer who hates everyone and can't smile. This is what happened to me. This is the transformation. I would go out and rob and do anything just to let the anger out."
Estrada sought revenge, helped along by TV and movie images of violence, he says.
His first juvenile arrest and detention was for assault and battery with great bodily harm. "I had heard terrible things about juvenile hall," he says. "But I loved it. There were three hot meals a day, electricity, a TV, and there was somebody there who would make certain I wouldn't die. All my physical needs were taken care of, and all my friends were there."
And when he was released from juvenile hall, there was the misplaced notoriety on the streets that he was "cool."
From the age of 14 to 18, he didn't spend more than four weeks in a row free on the streets. He was arrested again and again. "I would get so angry that I would explode on anyone," he says.
For him, punishment and incarceration were futile as ways to change his behavior.
"When your car is broken, do you just put it in the garage and expect it to come out fixed?" he says. "How can people just throw a kid in a cell, forget him, and expect he will come out all better?"
Once more on the outside, Estrada was witness to a machine gun shooting of another friend. Put in custody for his own safety, Estrada stabbed one of the perpetrators with a pencil, a youth who was mistakenly put near him in the detention center. A code of silence protected Estrada. On the outside again he vowed revenge but was arrested for carrying a gun.
Facing a judge who saw a faint spark of potential good in him, and contrary to all the official advice from other courtroom officials who said Estrada was hopeless, she sent Estrada to Rites of Passage, a residential behavior modification high school in Minden, Nev. No barbed wire fences, no guards or solitary confinement there.
Finally, Estrada came face to face with adults who said they wouldn't let him fail. He found himself under adult supervisors who looked him in the eye, explained the rules of engagement, and demanded he succeed along a new path.
"I interviewed Jeremy when he first arrived," says Lawrence Woodford, admissions and program development manager for Rites of Passage. "He was very hostile, but we did see leadership qualities, and we just had to channel it in a positive way. He had a rough time.... He didn't walk through this program."
Estrada says his heart was still hard when he arrived. "My attitude was, nobody is going to change me." The philosophy was "to give you positive feedback... and there were consequences when you did something wrong."
Slowly, he began to like the reinforcement, his heart opening up to possibilities. "I hadn't got past the seventh grade before," he says. "In my mind I never thought I could have conversations with adults." He began to read everything and talk with the staff endlessly. "Instead of lifting weights, I was reading, " he says. But it took Estrada two years to overcome the inner-city conditioning that came with him. "Through sports I developed self-esteem, " he says of his time on the wrestling team, "and education became my power."
To keep Estrada from returning to the inner city, Rites of Passage helped him enroll at Mt. Lassen Junior College in Northern California. Responding to the challenge of independence, he eventually became student body president. After Lassen, Estrada won a scholarship to Pepperdine University near Los Angeles where he is now studying with the goal of becoming a doctor.
Of his path from gang banging to book reading and exams at Pepperdine, Estrada thinks his story is not so unusual.
"Please understand," he tells the crowd at the conference in Orlando, "my story is literally nothing. In my neighborhood alone there are hundreds of stories like this.... Kids on the streets are not these horrible animals the media portrays them to be. They are our children, my brothers, your nieces and nephews.... So I beg you to try and reach these kids."