“Never let your schooling interfere with your education,” Matt Sanchez tells a laughing crowd, a room full of adversaries, gang members from all over the South Coast. One says Matt is chill, respectful, that everyone gets along with him, and it sounds like state diplomacy. Sanchez leads a snowboarding retreat for these enemies, of all things, called Hoods in the Woods. “I love my guys. And I love that they love me,” he says. The guys are standing around, some in borrowed jackets, ready to board a bus for a different situation. They bunk with guys they don’t know. Everybody falls down in the snow and everybody helps somebody get back up. A tough surveys the still beauty, the white landscape all around and declares this must be heaven. The hope is that some little tidbit sticks in their mind about their future. There is help out there, Matt wants them to be aware. He knows. He was one of them once.
To see him today, a respectable family man with impeccably groomed black hair, there’s no sign he was ever a gang leader, a heroin addict, a felon. He can talk with these kids from a place of deep understanding. He was smoking weed in grade school. At 18, his brother was killed in front of him, a gun accident at home. Emotions were buried. Pain dissolved in narcotics. Sanchez realizes that statistically, a lot of guys won’t make it. But the plan is to reach some and teach them to save lives, not take them. To make better choices, particularly in a retaliatory moment: where will it stop? he asks them. In 2001 Sanchez received the California Peace Prize. His organization, All for One, has been helped by numerous grants and donations. Yet every day is a personal struggle to stay sober. He knows what that life cost him, and doesn’t want others to suffer.
Sanchez owns a barbershop in Montecito, which he bought from his father. If the place were in a movie, it might seem too coincidental that gang kids pop in to talk with him, and some of the highest-profile men in town wait patiently. In fact, many have been quite influential and financially supportive. Long ago he needed to take time off work to speak in high schools. Word got around of his gift of gab, that gang members trusted him. More teachers asked for a visit. He partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs. He hosted his first football BBQ, a cross-gang event with other mentors and collaborators from gangs. Activities outside of the urban experience seemed to generate the right ambience for mutual support. All they needed to bring was themselves and a good attitude. If they excelled, they could return the following year as a mentor. The Mammoth snow retreat was a huge success. They ate together, built snowmen together, learned each other’s names. Weapons were checked in for the weekend, to be returned. They learned CPR. Learned that every day, “everybody’s gotta make choices.”
It’s a big deal, when a gang member hopes to come back the following year for the next generation of toughs. Or hopes for anything at all, actually.