Arnoldo Garay is coming off a bad year. Last year, when he was 16, Arnoldo said he was drinking, selling drugs and hanging out with a dangerous crowd.
Then he fell into a dark depression.
"It was crazy," he said. "I tried to commit suicide."
He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Sacramento, and after that his mother kicked him out.
"She had some problems with me," Arnoldo said. "She said she can’t do a man’s job, so she sent me closer to my dad."
Before his father came to pick him up at the psychiatric hospital last year, Arnoldo said he didn't know him that well. But he said he's not bitter that his father left him. He’s just happy to have him back.
"It was a good feeling...to know at least I got one," Arnoldo said of his dad. "A lot of these kids don’t even get to meet theirs their whole life....He’s awesome to me."
Now instead of selling weed, Arnoldo and his dad collect recycling every Saturday and Sunday from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.
"It’s a good feeling. It’s really a good feeling," Arnoldo said of his nighttime outings with his dad. "I’m just dreaming, looking at the skyscrapers, nice lights on the bridges while everybody’s asleep. You know?"
Arnoldo lives with an aunt and her young son in East Oakland. Many of his neighbors are also growing up without fathers.
"Ask anybody up and down this block. Most likely, they don’t got no father, don’t have no connection with him," said 19-year-old Damarea, who declined to give his last name, citing a poor relationship with his own father.
Mentors Who Know the Streets
It’s young men like Arnoldo and Damarea that a new group—the Men of Influence—is trying to reach.
Every week, between 10 and 30 men meet for hours at the Rainbow Recreation Center in East Oakland. Glen Upshaw started Men of Influence in January, just weeks after a 15-year-old neighbor, Jubrille Jordan, was shot in the back of the head while walking near the Coliseum BART station.
She was the 25th Oakland teenager killed in 2012.
"A lot of the homicides last year were innocent people," Upshaw said. "A lot of people who had nothing to do with the streets."
Upshaw knows the streets. He was raised in East Oakland. He even did a little time as a young man for robbing a grocery store and later, as an adult, for domestic violence.
Now he works as a counselor for California Youth Outreach.
"I live it, I see it, so I'm trying to make it better for everybody else," he said.
One afternoon, Arnoldo Garay happened to be at the rec center playing basketball.
He was bouncing the ball when one of the elder men told him join the circle.
Arnoldo ended up sitting with the men for hours. He opened up to the group, telling them about dealing drugs and spending time in a psychiatric hospital. One of the men gave Arnoldo his cell phone number and told him to call if he ever needed anything, day or night.
"I think it’s actually pretty cool because it’s people trying to help give back to the community," Arnoldo said. "And some of us really just need the help, you know?"
Lamar Allen is one of the Men of Influence.
"We have to become the elders, we have to adopt these kids in a sense," said the 44-year-old Allen.
An elder can be 29 or 60, Allen said. The important thing is for Men of Influence to recruit teenagers in order to work toward actually stopping the shootings.
"We just wanna show the kids that’s out here now, feeling hopeless, that we care," Allen said. "And put the gun down."
That’s exactly what 29-year-old Greg Johnson is trying to do with Damarea, who is about to become a father himself.
Damarea said he is determined to do a better job than his father.
"I don’t want my child to feel toward me how I feel toward my father," he said. "Like feel neglected, feel like he could have been there. The same old story."
Johnson gives Damarea rides to basketball games and shares parenting advice. In return, on a recent Saturday, Damarea helped Johnson and other members of Men of Influence pick up trash in the streets.
"If you don’t lead ‘em, somebody else is lead[ing] ‘em," Johnson said. "You don’t ever want the wrong person to lead ‘em, so that’s part of stepping up. You see him out here helping, he being a productive community member, so that’s all you could ask."
Filling a Vacuum
But raising a son in East Oakland can be incredibly hard, as group founder Glen Upshaw knows. Nearly 10 years ago, two of his sons were having problems with another group.
Upshaw stepped in to help resolve it, and he believed he had.
"I thought it was squashed," he said. "But somehow they started shooting at my sons, and I don't know where my sons got some guns from ... but they started shooting back, and an innocent bystander got shot."
That innocent bystander turned out to be the child of an old friend. Upshaw’s sons went to prison.
Upshaw said maybe if the Men of Influence had been around back then, that killing could have been prevented.