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Ex-gang members unite: 'You don't have to kill your neighbors'

  • Story Highlights
  • Homeboy Industries started in 1988 to help ease tensions among gangs
  • A new program funded by Homeboy trains ex-gang members on green jobs
  • "It's a lesson in that you don't have to kill your neighbors," says Richard Reyes
  • Ex-gang member says friends all went to jail: "I didn't want to live that life"
By Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash
CNN
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Rudolpho Marquez, Richard Reyes and Cesar Cruz make for a most unlikely car pool. They are all former gang rivals who have spent hard time in prison. But they've put the past behind them for common goals: jobs and their families.

Cruz says, "Seeing everybody I grew up with going to jail. I didn't want to live that life."

Rudolpho Marquez, Richard Reyes and Cesar Cruz are ex-gang members working together now.

"It's a lesson in that you don't have to kill your neighbors," said Reyes, who spent the last decade in and out of prison for an array of drug offenses. "It don't matter where you come from, what background you come from. We are all humans, and we should learn to live together."

Marquez chimed in, "We treat each other like normal human beings now. We get along great. We socialize."

The three men are part of a solar-installation program paid for by Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that works with former gang members and others who have spent time in prison to put them to work. Video Watch Homeboy help ex-gang members »

The latest project is aimed at green jobs, offering former gang members and parolees a chance to break ground in alternative energy programs while the issue is being pushed by President Obama and the nation's lawmakers.

Homeboy is the brainchild of the Rev. Gregory Boyle, known simply as Father Greg by everyone here. Boyle first started a small program in 1988 to offer alternatives to gang violence in one of Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods.

"I started burying young kids who were killed in our community," he told CNN. "I buried my first in 1988 and just buried my 165th two months ago. So we as a community started to say, 'We have to do something.' "

Over the last two decades, Homeboy has reached out to the 1,100 gangs in metro LA, helping provide a second chance to those who want it. The organization provides much-needed job training, hires ex-gang members for transitional jobs and helps give other free programs to people who otherwise struggle in the outside world.

Boyle said it's a simple philosophy: Offer gang members hope through gainful employment, and they'll want to "leave behind all of their gang past."

"This population really can't afford to just go to school. They are not living at home with their parents. They have no one there, really," he said.

Reyes calls the Catholic priest a saint. "If there were more people like him, there'd be less people like me," he said.

In Reyes' case, he missed the births of his daughters -- Valerie, 9, and Vanessa, 7 -- because he was behind bars.

"I feel I wasted my life," he said. "I thought being a father was making babies, but being a father is taking an interest in your kids."

Since his release from prison in May 2008, he has graduated at the top his class in the Homeboy-sponsored solar program. He is now working on a $2.5 million project for Lite Solar to install 1,500 solar panels on an apartment building.

As he watched his daughters play on a recent afternoon, he said, "It feels good knowing you can provide for them."

On Tuesday, Reyes got another reward: He welcomed his first son into the world.

His wife, Susana Reyes, said the Homeboy program completely changed her husband. "Before, it was all about his gang," she said. "Now, I know he loves his daughters."

Albert Ortega, now 34, spent seven years in prison, beginning when he was just 19. He was hired by Homeboy and is now the coordinator of the solar program.

"This program totally changed my life," he said.

A father of three children, Ortega said he kept making poor choices to make quick money. After his most recent release from prison, he said he approached Boyle to help him clean up his life.

"I was willing to try anything," Ortega said. "I just didn't want to go back to prison, and I didn't want to disappoint my daughters."

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That's a sentiment echoed by the car pool trio. "Seeing everybody I grew up with going to jail. I didn't want to live that life," said Cruz.

Added Reyes, "If you want to change your life around, anything is possible."

CNN's Traci Tamura and Gregg Canes contributed to this report.

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