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How this woman became ‘MaMa’ to ex-gang members

breaking barriers

Constance Caruso was already in her 80s when she decided to volunteer for Homeboy Industries, a gang rehabilitation program. She draws on challenges she’s had herself as she supports others.

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    Constance Caruso poses with a former gang member working at Homeboy Industries, a gang rehabilitation program.
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This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.

I was finally a contender as a writer. In 2013, my book, “Foothold in the Mountain,” about my life and career in Hollywood and on television, was launched to good reviews. You could say it took me a while. I was already in my 80s.

Given my age, I was surprised to be asked at a book signing, “What is your next project?” I was so jazzed about the success of my book, I blurted out, “I want to pay it forward.”

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. After learning about Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles in the local newspaper, I became a volunteer there. It’s an amazing organization that transforms former gangbangers into high-functioning citizens. It’s known as one of the most successful gang rehabilitation programs in the United States.

I have no specific title at Homeboy. Sometimes I’m called “MaMa,” and sometimes I’m affectionately known as “PITA,” as in pain in the you-know-what. I do fundraising, but I also do a lot of hugging and some scolding. I support, respect, appreciate, and love all my “homies” deeply, encouraging them to move forward and suggesting options.

Homeboy offers an “exit ramp” to those stuck in a cycle of violence and incarceration. With free services and programs, it supports 10,000 men and women a year as they work to overcome their pasts, reimagine their futures, and break the intergenerational cycle of gang violence.

Why Homeboy as my encore? I understand the nobility of enduring and transcending pain. I rose from the ashes of my childhood and experienced depression and emotional trauma – the whole nine yards. I believe I have a worthwhile message to pass on, and Homeboy is receptive to what I have to offer.

I am available to do whatever I am capable of, whenever I am called upon. I was team captain of the organization’s fundraiser – a 5K run/walk – rounding up participants at $40 a head and soliciting celebrities to help out. I also pitch in on clothing drives, rehabilitation meetings, and efforts to find work opportunities for the young people.

I take pride in success stories like that of Abraham Trejo. Most of his life was spent in juvenile homes and prisons and on parole. When he enrolled at Homeboy in 2014, his counselors found out how smart he was!

With Homeboy’s help, he turned his life around, enrolling in community college and even taking part in a study-abroad program in Oxford, England, with room and board provided by our fundraising. He hopes one day to become a lawyer and is a bright, well-mannered, and humble young man.

As for me, in my mid-80s and with full faculties intact, I am happy to report that it’s never over until it’s over. Life’s experience is the greatest teacher. The pain of learning is a gift we grow from. The joy of service is the biggest surprise. As the saying goes, “It is never too late to become who you might have been.”

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