On Oct. 8, 1994, Alejandro Carpio was shot three times in the head, neck and arm at close range — close enough he could almost kiss the barrel of his rival gang member’s handgun — in the drive-thru lane of a Carl’s Jr. on San Gabriel Boulevard in Rosemead. The bullet doing the most damage entered above his right ear, ripping out his right eye, and exiting from his other eye socket. One of his homeboys from the gang Las Lomas SSGV (South San Gabriel Valley) flagged down an ambulance that happened to be going by, and the badly injured 20-year-old was rushed to Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. Although on life support, he survived but was blinded.Just as amazing, after “Downer,” his gang moniker, got out of the hospital about six weeks later, he eventually went back to gang-banging and selling drugs, often alone on the street with a .357 magnum tucked away in his waist. “Even my homies thought I was crazy,” he says with a growing grin. “Everybody thought I was able to see. My gun was my cane. A lot of people feared me, thinking that I was able to see. I mean, because everything I was doing, it was normal to me. I didn’t feel blind. I couldn’t see them, but I felt them, especially if they were close. It might sound crazy, but it’s in my head like a shadow.”Then six years ago, even more physical trauma and pain entered Carpio’s life. One of his own homeboys, “wigged out” on the drug crystal meth, wrapped an electrical extension cord around his neck and pulled so hard it actually dug into the skin. The near fatal strangling did permanent nerve and muscle damage that left him in constant pain, with his head and neck tilted sharply to the left.Before and after these two violent life-altering incidents, he was in and out of juvenile halls and probation “boot camps” as well as Los Angeles Country Jail after turning 18. And that’s what changed him — but not for the reason one might suspect.While doing a seven-month stretch of “county time,” he was told by Latino gang members that they had to stop fighting amongst themselves while locked up and stick together against blacks, Asians and whites. “It didn’t make no sense,” the 37-year-old Carpio explains today. “The same guys that I was trying to kill on the outside, I’m right there locked up with them and I can’t do nothing to them. That was stupid to me and made me rethink the whole thing about gang life.”Motivating and mentoringSo when Carpio was released from jail, he went to the Foundation for the Junior Blind in January 2007. He learned how to use a cane, read basic Braille and how to work a computer with special audio software that spoke to him. One day the director said he was a “real motivation” for others and should contact Father Greg Boyle. So that’s what he did. And the Jesuit, who founded and still directs Homeboy Industries, offered him a job on the spot as a “motivational speaker.” When the former gang member asked, “What is a motivational speaker?” the priest said, “Son, just tell your story. And guess what? You’ll get paid.”“So I jumped on it,” Carpio recalls, eventually becoming a certified Gang Intervention and Prevention Counselor. And for the next 2 1/2 years, he took his story as a 20-year active gang-banger to elementary schools, high schools and colleges. With his outgoing demeanor, street smarts and sense of humor, he was able to “open the kids’ eyes” to the real day-to-day violence as opposed to the so-called “drama” of being a gang member. Moreover, he would speak about how the gang life had taken away his sight when he was barely out of his teens, knowing well his blindness was the most powerful statement he could make of what gang-banging was all about. After gathering kids around him, he would take off his dark sunglasses and use his fingers to pry open the lids of his useless eyes. The right one, which had no pupil at all, was bloodshot white; the other looked pretty normal. “I let them know my eyes were blue, they were hazel,” he reports. “Now I don’t know the color of my eyes. And the reaction of the kids was ‘Oh, wow!’”At about the same time, he started one-on-one mentoring adolescents at risk of joining gangs like he did. “I tried to guide them and teach them to learn from my mistakes,” he said. “I’d go, ‘Just because you want to get high and kick back and look cool, you’re gonna end up getting shot and messed up.’ And I know I was really getting to my ‘mentees’ and also the kids at the schools.”But then the financial bottom fell out of Homeboy Industries in May 2010. Unable to raise $5 million it needed to operate programs after moving into a new headquarters near Chinatown, the two-decade-old gang intervention and prevention organization had to lay off more than 300 workers. One of those was Alejandro Carpio. In what Father Boyle called a “Frank Capra moment,” he broke down when almost all of the laid-off workers vowed to return to their jobs as long as they could without pay. Carpio kept up his motivational speaking and mentoring at Homeboy Industries without pay for nine months, with the hope of being hired back on staff. But when that didn’t happen, he was devastated. “You know, when I was working for Homeboy, I was one hundred percent for Homeboy,” he points out. “I wasn’t one foot in, one foot out. I’d been wanting help, and when Father Greg gave me that help, I took advantage of it.“So, yeah, it was bad. And I couldn’t believe: ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m doing everything I’ve got to do. I’m helping out my worse enemies.’ So I was stressed out, bro, because I needed that money and I loved what I was doing. So it hurt. It hurt a lot.” Feeding youngsters his mistakesBut the ex-gang-banger decided to follow his muse, continuing his work but as an independent gang interventionist and prevention counselor. Going on almost two years now, Carpio has spoken at local colleges, including USC and UCLA; high schools like Locke and Manual Arts in Los Angeles; and at probation “boot camps” and juvenile halls in Los Angeles and Orange counties. He’s also been part of the Confirmation program at St. Columbkille and Nativity churches in Los Angeles. In addition, he has appeared on MTV’s “T.I.’s Road to Redemption,” Spanish News Channels 34 and 62, and in La Opinion newspaper.In fact, his work has expanded to where he often goes on speaking assignments with another former gang member who was also blinded in a shooting. He says Virginia Romero, who he mentored and is the mother of three children, brings a female point of view about gang life and violence.Mostly by word of mouth, he has also mentored more than 300 at-risk youths since his days working at Homeboy Industries, including 57 right now, not only locally in person but also over the phone from as far away as San Diego and Chicago. “I talk to them and I hear them out,” he reports. “And then I open their eyes to what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing good. Why are they having problems?“The reason is they’re always trying to have ‘drama’ in their lives by getting high and doing things they shouldn’t be doing to impress other people. They just don’t have no guidance; so I’m that guidance for them. Otherwise, they just get stuck where they are.”The motto on the card he hands out reads “Feeding youngsters my life and my mistakes.” He says nobody ever spoke to him about gangs and gang life the way he speaks to youths — telling them the truth how one’s own homies usually aren’t true friends and often wind up hurting you more than your enemies.To a visitor to his neatly kept apartment in Monrovia, where he’s lived alone the last four years, Carpio confides that it’s been a struggle at times breaking away from Las Lomas SSGV. He says the gang, which is the oldest and largest Latino gang in the valley, has always gotten a lot of respect — not only on the street, but also in jails and prisons. But he also points out that gang members today don’t have the same sense of pride they did when he was active.“You know, every tattoo I’ve got on my body, I deserved it,” he says. “I mean, I got it because I did something for my gang. And these guys now, all they’re doing is just getting high on crystal meth and getting tattoos of the gang without doing anything for the gang. Don’t get me wrong. I tried drugs, but I never let the drugs try me. That still gets me upset. See, I patrolled all day, making sure nobody was in our territory selling drugs who shouldn’t be there. Today, they’re just claiming the fame. And that goes for every gang.“But my homies still call me. They try to drag me back, but ain’t nobody taking me back ’cause I’m on a whole different path now. When I was in the negative life, like gang-banging and stuff, I had a lot of people following me in a negative way. And I thank Father Greg for giving me the opportunity to become the person I am today.“Now I have people following me in a positive way,” he points out. “So the only time I go back to Rosemead is to go visit my friends who are resting in peace. I go to the cemetery, take them flowers, spend some time with them and come back home.”He says it’s also been a continuing challenge convincing others, including even some members of his own family, that he has a new life vision. “You know, society looks on us that we cannot change,” he notes. And it’s been hard living on his base income of $908 a month from Social Security Disability.Living for a reasonAfter being shot three times, including one bullet that went through his head from side to side, Alejandro Carpio is 100 percent convinced God let him live for a reason. And that reason is to prevent kids from joining gangs and to help those already involved in gangs leave that destructive — and often deadly — life.“I was blind before I became blind,” he observes. “I was blind on hurting my own family. I was blind on believing in my so-called friends. I was blind on where the gang was taking me. And now I realize I was blind to hurting other people.” After a moment, he says, “I mean, I love God. Actually, I love myself now. And it took a miracle to end up being where I am.” The ex-gang member and current motivational speaker and mentor can be reached at (626) 722-7102 or [email protected]. He can also be found on Facebook. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0706/gangworker/{/gallery}