“I was not dealt the cards to be a successful person. I was dealt the cards to be a gang member involved in violence on the west side of Chicago.”


I was involved in gang life for 36 years. I went to prison seven different times serving a combined total of 12 years in prison. I have never killed or shot anyone myself, but I was around that stuff the whole time I was in “the life.” I always thought I was having fun. My man was a big drug dealer, money was never a problem, and we were busy hustling from day to day. I was so accustomed to seeing people shot and killed that when it happened I would feel bad, it would hurt, but then the next day or three hours later, I had moved on to business as usual.

As time goes by, you sink deeper and deeper into hell. There was a point when I didn’t see my family for 16 or 17 years. I didn’t even know what my children looked like. I was just so lost.  I thought that those were the cards that I had been dealt in this life, and there was nothing that I could do to change it. You know? God’s got nothing for me; nobody’s got nothing for me. I really believed I was not dealt the cards to be a successful person, or a lawyer or doctor. I was destined to be a gang member, involved in violence on the West Side of Chicago. I didn’t care if I lived or died.


There was a time when I couldn’t go into certain hoods in Chicago because I would get killed by a rival gang. Today, I can go anywhere that I want, and people respect me across the board. I never want to give anyone the impression that I forget where I come from. Because I don’t. Where I come from fuels my every breath to change things today.

I come from a family of Sicilian immigrants, and I grew up partially in Little Italy on Chicago’s West Side. I was raised by my grandmother after my mother left when I was five. In Sicilian families, the wife or mother never gets to take the kids. It’s always the man. So my father got custody of me and my little sister, and then he signed us over to his mother. We were really raised by my grandmother.

My father loved us and did the best that he could, but he just wasn’t father material. He wasn’t abusive or anything like that, he just really wasn’t around. He was off doing his own thing. When I was around seven, we were forced out of our neighborhood, because of the expansion of the University of Illinois and Medical Center.


We moved to Oak Park when I was around nine, and that’s where I really grew up and went to school. Our apartment had a bedroom for my father, but he rarely came home – maybe once a week. My grandmother was a really good person, and I was her absolute favorite. My family did what they could to try and help keep me on track as a young girl, but I was not trying to hear it.

I grew up toward the end of the hippie era, and I was always out running around, getting high at like 10 years old. And it just escalated from there. I didn’t have a lot of parental supervision.


I had a grandma that I could easily talk into anything. And, as far as my family, well, back in those days people would think, “Oh well, they’ll grow out of it.” I was a really wild and fearless-type kid. I was hitchhiking all around, taking pills, drinking, and going to parties and concerts. I was just uncontrollable.

I joined a Latino street gang in Chicago when I was pretty young. By this time, I was already hooked on heroin pretty badly, and I had a two year old, my son, with me. I’m gangbanging, and at the safe house, I was dealing big time drugs. I’m thinking, “Okay, I’ll just put him in the other room, he’ll be fine.” I just didn’t know how to be a mother, I guess. I didn’t raise any of my five kids.


Thankfully, my family, even when they wouldn’t have anything to do with me, they took my children in. I’m very thankful for that. Whatever crime you could think of, I was doing it. I was never afraid. I was such an adrenaline junkie.

My man was this big time drug dealer, and money was never a problem. We were all hustlers. I didn’t really think that there was anything wrong with my life at the time, like people shooting at me or being around major high-risk individuals. Not a problem. I was so immune to seeing people shot and killed.

There was no tomorrow. It was just, “Am I going to die in a minute or not?” Eventually, the life went out of my eyes, and I just kept making the motions. And then 15 years went by, and all of a sudden, there was a cell door slamming in my face. I thought, “This isn’t fun.” But I would get out and go right back to the street.

My drug habit was so bad. To say that my addiction was a monster is a gross understatement. 27 or 28 years in, I started really struggling to stay above water. I had nothing but a big dope habit to show for all of that time.


I was 50 years old, and I found myself back in the state penitentiary. I started feeling this hopelessness when my release day was coming up. It started getting close, and I was kind of scared because I knew that every time I got out of jail, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. So I always jumped right back in the fire.

I started thinking to myself, “You’re gonna die in the streets. You’re gonna die from a bullet.” And, at that point, I made a deal between myself and God that I would at least try to change this time, which was more than I had ever said before. I got out and went directly into a program, ‘A Safe Haven’, which was a re-entry program in Chicago. I was 52 years old.

It was a rocky start. I wasn’t used to people telling me what to do, but I finally gave in to the process and let it do its thing. And it worked. I found that what really made a difference was people believing in me. I could really feel that support. People started to believe in me and respect me, and that gave me enough fire to just keep going a little longer.  I forever owe a debt of gratitude to A Safe Haven for giving me my life back. That program was the only one that was able to reach me. They treated the root causes of my behavior and I never looked back.


Before I knew it, I was sober for three, four, five months. I got a job and saved some money. It was amazing. I found that people were willing to take a chance on me, and that made me want to succeed. Random acts of kindness. I found my passion the more I started doing work in the streets, trying to help at-risk youths and gang members.

I found my life’s purpose, and it all felt very full circle. I can remember telling my grandma when I was a little girl, “Grandma, someday I’m gonna make a difference.” And all of those years in the gang, I never thought it could happen, you know? But all of a sudden, I found myself thriving, and I thought, “You know what? I can make a difference.”  It was a wonderful feeling for me to know that.

Now I am a violence interrupter. I volunteer at a lot of organizations, and I go into a lot of prisons trying to help people. I take this purpose very seriously. I know that my story has helped to save lives because people reach out to me all the time. I still go back to the streets where I used to run. I’ll work my regular job (CeaseFire, an anti-violence group) and when I’m leaving, I go through the hood, stop, get out, and check on everybody.

I go back into those communities, and I have a reputation. People there still respect me highly. As long as you don’t leave the life disrespecting them or doing something really messed up, you can usually just go. I mean, people get old. To this day, if I see one of the brothers in the street, I give him a hug. “If you need me, here’s my card. Call me.”

I take every call. I answer every message. I usually have like 50 social media messages every day, and I answer every single one of them before I go to sleep.


I’ve been doing this work for a long time now. Obviously, I know that one person can’t save the whole world, right? But, I’m going to keep believing that I can.

Every single day, I am going to touch as many people as I can. It can be feeding a homeless person, helping a struggling mother get her baby formula, stopping a shooting or something. It all makes a difference. Every night when I go to sleep, I know that I did something that day to help humanity.