Terra Linda resident Danny Saint-Amans casually lifts his black t-shirt to reveal the work "murder" tattooed on his stomach in faded ink.
The tattoo is memento of a tough past filled with gangs, robberies, drugs and money. "There's nothing I haven't done," Saint-Amans said as he sipped his coffee at Peet's in .
Now retired from his criminal career, Saint-Amans dedicates his time to empowering kids following a destructive road similar to the one he traveled more than a decade ago. He's currently looking for office space to house Take A Different Path, his new nonprofit that offers gang intervention and crisis response to at-risk youth and young adults.
"I decided to do this when I kept hearing about my friends kids getting shot at or beaten up because of gangs," he said.
Teamed up with fellow founders Lamont Carver and Lorne Evje, Saint-Amans hopes they'll be able to reach and support troubled kids due to their experience.
"I was 12 years old when I first tried to kill someone," Saint-Amans remembered.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, Saint-Amans was a key player in gangs as an early teen. He bounced in and out of the justice system beginning at the age of 14. His arrest record includes weapons possession, assault, battery, drugs and burglary charges.
In his teens and early 20s, he drove out of the county to participate in robberies in order to remain unknown to local police. In 2001, he went to court for three felony counts of commercial burglary and pled guilty to one, according to court records.
Carver was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He became a ward of the state when he was 9 years old, after his mother passed away the year before. For the next eight years, he was shipped from one group home to the next until he was an adult.
While still in his teens, Carver began selling crack and joined a local gang. "I've been in shootouts. I've been in stabbings," he said. "But I was smart and lucky enough that I stayed out of jail."
The Turning Point
Saint-Amans had an epiphany one day when he was in jail. It was five days after his son was born, and he realized he wanted to get out of the gang and be a father to his kids.
"That was the beginning," he said. "Soon after that I stopped taking a gun to the bathroom for protection."
Now a father of two, he opened an auto repair shop and joined the
Carver's turn around came from luck. At the age of 19, a violent brawl sent him in the hospital with a stab wound in the neck. The wound could've left him paralyzed, but he healed without any long term side effects.
"I knew this wasn't what I wanted from my life," he said. He decided not to test his luck again. In 1996, at the age of 25 he moved to Novato and in the 2000s, he met Saint-Amans through a mutual friend.
For both of them, most of the people they "worked" with in the past are now dead or in prison. "After a while, you just get tired of digging holes," Saint-Amans said.
Building the Nonprofit
Before they began thinking about forming a nonprofit, Saint-Amans and Carver began to reach out to minors already involved in crime through the juvenile drug court program, where youth with substance-abuse problems and law violations can go through court-supervised counseling and treatment.
They realized the kids could relate to them because of their similar backgrounds and experience. "We look like the kids. We talk like the kids. It means a lot more than a parole officer or a counselor," Carver said.
They began hosting basketball games with the hopes that the kids could be distracted from trouble by good, healthy fun.
Now they are working with a group of around a dozen high schoolers, mostly identified with the help of the drug court program.
"I know one kid who's career goal is to be a professional bank robber," Saint-Amans said. "Unless someone is there to show him that there's other things to be, that's what he's going to do."
In December 2011, Saint-Amans and Carver filed the paperwork for their nonprofit. Evje, a recovering alcoholic, also joined as the chief financial officer in hopes of showing kids that "there's a better way to view life than through the bottom of a liquor bottle."
Their new website and business cards provides a phone number with "Anytime. No Kidding." written next to it.
Modeled off a gang-intervention program called Firehouse in San Jose, Take a Different Path will provide case management, community service, crisis intervention, field trips, gang redirection, individual and group rap sessions, mediation and sports and recreation. Saint-Amans's 15-year-old daughter might also provide tutoring.
The nonprofit will emphasize college or trade schools, summer jobs and the importance of legitimate work. Saint-Amans will be working with new San Rafael Police Chief Diana Bishop to get the police and community involved.
Concern over gang violence spiked in San Rafael after a Corte Madera man ended up dead on a Gerstle Park doorstep in May 2011. . were 18 and 17 years old.
"So many kids, when they're close to 18, that's it," Carver said.
With Take a Different Path, Carver and Saint-Amans hope to provide support for kids even after they legally become adults.
"We shouldn't be writing them off," Saint-Amans said. "If I can change, anyone can change."