AURORA SALDIVAR/Coachella Uninc
COACHELLA — Ramon Leija clearly remembers the moment he decided to turn his life around.
It happened when he was 17-years-old and incarcerated at the Riverside County Juvenile Detention Center. His mother had come to visit him, and she was drenched in tears.
“Just seeing how I upset my mom, I realized that not only was I hurting myself, but I’m [also] hurting the people around me,” recalls Leija.
But he would have to wait three years – until the end of his sentence — to start over and begin the process of making amends with his family and community. Now, at the age of 22, Leija is making good on the promise he made to himself, as coordinator of a mentorship program for other young men in the eastern Coachella Valley.
Leija’s new position with the Boys and Men of Color (BMOC) program will allow him the opportunity to influence young men to avoid the pitfalls that he encountered. “I want to be able to set a path and be able to reach out to these students and let them know that it is possible. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from,” says Leija, who understands full well the challenges of being a young man in the east valley.
“Growing up in my neighborhood, I was surrounded by bad influences. Being so young and naïve, I believed that what I saw was the only way,” explains Leija, who stops just short of sharing the details of his crime. “The whole environment, the atmosphere of being busted, was one of discomfort, loneliness, isolation.”
Creating leaders, not followers
The local BMOC is part of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a statewide coalition of youth, community organizations, foundations, and leaders. The goals of the program — funded in large part by The California Endowment through its Building Healthy Communities initiative — are to ensure that young men of color ages 15 to 19 are healthy, successful in school and work, contributing to their community, and living in safe neighborhoods.
The latter is particularly important to Leija.
“I don’t want to blame my neighborhood, but [my offenses] had a lot to do with my neighborhood and where I grew up,” he says. “Unfortunately, at that time, I was a follower.”
The local BMOC program felt like the perfect fit for Leija, but the coordinator position seemed like a long shot. Leija expected he would be overlooked for the position because of his background, but he was willing to help in any way.
“I came in looking to volunteer and came out with a paying job,” he recalls.
He jumped right into his work, holding trainings twice a week to prepare students to participate in a statewide Boys and Men of Color “enrichment camp” in Portola, California, last August.
“I felt that Coachella really stood out (at the camp),” said Leija, who received positive feedback from other groups across the state about the engagement of the eastern Coachella Valley students.
Fourteen BMOC groups from across the state participated in the workshops dealing with young men’s relationships to violence, drug use, misogyny, and disrespect in their respective communities.
“After the camp the students had a completely different perspective and sense of consciousness,” says Leija.
Now back in Coachella, Leija says his journey, and that of the young men he works with, has just begun.
“The camp was just the beginning, the spark of a movement within the Eastern Coachella Valley,” he says.
Leija plans to utilize a curriculum that will frame his conversations with the young BMOC participants around broad themes like cultural consciousness, healing and well being, manhood development, health equity, social justice and leadership.
“These students all have the right mindset,” he says, excitedly. “They just need the direction.”
Leija is also organizing lectures featuring local community leaders and planning culturally significant field trips.
Leija believes his own journey through the criminal justice system might have been avoided, had he been able to experience a program like BMOC when he was a teen.
“All I needed was one person to say ‘I believe in you’ and ‘I want to help you,’” says Leija, who attributes his current success to those who have extended a helping hand. “I want to be the face of change, [and] mentorship is key to the process.”
Leija says the idea is for the BMOC work to proliferate, by having the same young men who are currently in the program eventually go out and recruit others to promote health and healing within the community.
“The goal coming back from the camp is to take these seven students and turn them into a team and bring the curriculum from the camp back into the community here,” he explains.
He hopes to partner with Mecca Boys & Girls Club to amplify the Boys and Men of Color message, though healing circles among other things.
“In order to get to the parents we have to get through to the students, and in turn begin to heal the community at large,” he explains.
“My punishment became a blessing”
Leija says he has been humbled by the support and mentorship he has received from community leaders in the eastern Coachella Valley as he settles into his new position.
Carlos Gonzalez, vice chair of Raices, a youth and community organization that hosts the local BMOC program, is one of those supporters.
“Ramon was very unique. He spoke from his heart. [He spoke] of his past experiences and the extent to which he cares about changing his life, getting a second chance,” says Gonzalez, who is working closely with Leija to build the Eastern Coachella Valley BMOC curriculum. “A sign of a man is when he falls, he can pick himself up. That’s what Ramon brings.”
Leija, who earned his high school diploma while in Riverside County Juvenile Detention Center, is now a student at College of the Desert. He hopes to become a firefighter, a career he says is all about giving back.
“My past is what motivated me to be the man that I am now. What began as a punishment became a blessing.”
Eastern Coachella Valley Boys and Men of Color operate out of the Raices Cultura office at 1494 Sixth Street, Coachella. For more information or to get involved please contact Ramon Leija at (760) 289-5088 or [email protected]
For information on the statewide initiative, visit the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color website.
Headline updated: April 15, 2016