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Overcoming the odds: Former gang member finds home

‘Yesterday’s bad news is today’s good news’

POSTED: December 30, 2013 11:44 p.m.

Thomas Ramirez has a passion for helping people overcome their demons.

It’s a battle he understands personally and one he sees playing out hundreds of times each day at the Good News at Noon homeless shelter in Gainesville where he serves as director.

Ramirez often uses his life story as a lesson for young people visiting the shelter’s academy, an after-school program.

Ramirez was 12 years old when his family moved from Mexico to Gainesville in 1975. He started hanging live chickens at a processing plant shortly after turning 16. It was a “nasty job” but one he was grateful for.

He often took his lunch break with a group of his co-workers.

“At lunchtime they would go and smoke pot and drink beer before going back to work,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t want to be left out so I was doing it because I wanted to hang out with them. Eventually, I got hooked on it. That’s when the bad times started.”

Ramirez was offered a job with a gang. He said it’s a line of work he’s ashamed of now but provided easy money at the time.

His gang involvement led to trouble with the law and increased drug and alcohol use.

Ramirez said there was a Hall County judge who kept giving him breaks in hopes it would change his life, but instead it only got worse.

Until one night when he was running late to a meeting at the gang’s “hideout.” The job that night involved beating up a man.

“By the time I got to (the) table, everybody was already high,” Ramirez said. “Before you do a job you smoke a joint, drink a beer and do some (cocaine). That way you don’t have no sense of what you’re doing. You just do it. Actually, some of those people thought it was funny.

“I looked around and everybody was laughing and giving high fives and saying ‘We’re going to do this and this’ and bragging about how we were going to do this. For the first time in my career I was sober and I see evil faces. All I could see was evil around me. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ Then they were saying ‘OK, Thomas you’re late.” They already had my line of coke, a beer and a joint. I sat down but I was uncomfortable.”

Ramirez declined the drugs and beer and said he had to go have dinner with his girlfriend’s parents when they finished the job.

The gang piled into a van and drove to a stretch of dark road where their victim would be walking home from work. They waited and attacked “like vultures.”

Ramirez held back while the others jumped on the screaming victim.

“It was the first time I heard the screaming of somebody when I was not intoxicated. It made me nervous,” Ramirez said. “Then somehow the moon became clear and I got close to (the fight) and I saw the face of the guy and it was one of my friends. We were supposed to be real close friends. It freaked me out. I saw the blood on his face and heard him screaming. It was at that moment I thought ‘Is this what I do with my life? What am I doing with my life?’ In that moment I felt like God was telling me, ‘Thomas, you’re doing wrong. You just didn’t know it.’”

Not long after, Ramirez quit the gang. He wanted to live a better life, but he found himself stuck “in the middle.”

No one trusted him. Employers wouldn’t hire him because of his criminal background.

Without an income, he became homeless and eventually walked into Good News at Noon for a warm meal.

The shelter’s founder, Gene Beckstein, 91, took Ramirez “under his wing” and found him a job at an auto parts store.

“I was still drinking on the weekends and smoking pot sometimes, I just couldn’t let it go for some reason,” Ramirez said, shrugging his shoulders slightly.

The more time Ramirez spent with Beckstein, the more he realized there was another way to live, a way that brought others up instead of beating them to the ground.

Many of the children he mentors at the shelter are taking paths similar to the one he took in his youth, and he tries to show them another way.

Ramirez has a briefcase full of the children’s “toys” — knives and guns. Many of the toys are kitchen knives the children held for protection. Others were carried with the intention of causing harm until Ramirez asked the children to give them up.

“Someone has to show them what’s waiting for them in the future and tell them it doesn’t have to be like that,” Ramirez said. “They can make a better choice. I made a lot of wrong choices because I didn’t have anyone to guide me. But then I found Jesus, and he’s still my guide.”

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