IF 25-year-old Tamark Douglas had known then what he knows now, he would have told his fellow gang members that gangster life was not worth the hype, that there was a better way to survive and live a longer life.
But his experience came the hard way — watching his friends die, having scuffles with the police, before finally turning his life around.
"Choosing a life in gangs — you have to expect the unexpected — you know that your time can come at any time. Seeing some of my friends drop out in violence was tough. I am sorry I did not have the chance then to tell them what I know now, that this is not the right way," said Douglas, who is now a mentor and motivational speaker to at-risk youths.
"Being a gangster, you have to be tough. You know that big man don't cry, so even though you feel a way that yuh friend die you can't show it."
His emotions were not the only thing he learnt to hide. His gangster lifestyle was a secret to many who knew him, including his family.
"My mom did not have the slightest idea that I had gotten involved with some of these persons, so when she heard she was shocked," said Douglas, an employee of Sagicor in New Kingston. "I did not want her to know because I know she would worry and hound me to come out of it, so I kept it quiet."
Sure enough, when she found out, his mother was surprised, upset and hurt.
"She said that me could dead and she don't know. If I was not a big man at the time when I told her, she would a give me a sound flogging," he said.
His story is typical of many at-risk youth who become criminals.
"I was born and raised in Arnett Gardens. It was my mom alone. No father. He is alive, but was never there for us. I have a bigger brother and sister. I was the last one," he said. "She did days work at the time."
Unable to make ends meet, his mother became a squatter in Harbour View. It was a decision that would split the family, as his eldest brother struck out on his own rather than face the squalor of the new home. Despite her best efforts, her long working hours made it hard for her to supervise her children and, eventually, Douglas started getting into trouble at Camperdown High School.
According to a study done in 2011 by the Office of the Children's Advocate, several factors contribute to children turning to crime including poor parenting (60 per cent), lack of adequate supervision (60 per cent), and frustrations with school, or being illiterate or semi-illiterate (74 per cent), which then shows in vulnerablilty to negative peer influence (37 per cent), and the influence of "dons" or "donmanship" (49 per cent).
Douglas was one of the luckier ones. He avoided the gangs in high school through the intervention of his mentor, Dr Henley Morgan and his Miracle Club, a mentorship organisation.
"I used to give a lot of trouble at Camperdown, but I could run and play football. Then I met Dr Morgan, who was doing community work there. He told me I had talent and he got me transferred to Ardenne (High School)," said Douglas. While at Ardenne, he was involved in sports but only passed one subject on his first attempt at CXC's. He repeated the course of study and in 2004 got six subjects.
Things were looking up. He was excited about getting a job and helping to support his mother. Then Hurricane Ivan hit a few months later and, again, the family was split.
"Ivan destroyed the house we were living in. I went to my brother and my mom went to her sister. It was rough. Eventually I had to leave my brother's house, but I got a job at Island Dreams Bedding. It was paying $3,500 weekly so I got a little place in Central Village," he said.
Away from his mother's watchful eye and struggling to make ends meet, it was not long before he was hanging with the wrong crowd and getting involved in gun-related activities. Things started getting 'hot' and a rough run-in with the police made him stop and take stock.
"I was detained by the police for three days but they did not have anything on me so I was released," he recalled.
This pushed him back to Dr Morgan for guidance. His mentor urged him not to go back to Central Village and found him space at a boy's camp in Arnett Gardens.
"I lived in a tent there for eight months and he got me a job at Salada (Foods) for three years. Eventually, I moved on to another job and then I got to Sagicor," said Douglas.
There he met another positive influence, Executive Vice President, Mark Chisholm.
"I look at him and feel pride because he came from my area in similar circumstances," said Douglas.
Tamark is now using his story to influence other at-risk youth. One of the initiatives that he speaks passionately about is the Rotary Club of Kingston's BACK2LIFE project that was launched recently.
"If it was not for Dr Morgan mentoring me, I would not be where I am now. Many youths try to turn around, but they don't have the help to get where they want to go," he said. "This Rotary project is an opportunity for me to share my experience so I am happy to be a part of it."
The multimillion-dollar project will prepare 93 young men at the Rio Cobre Correctional Facility in St Catherine for re-entry into Jamaican society. The project will partner with Children First, 100 mentors, psychologists and other groups to undertake targeted behaviour change activities such as career planning and life skills building with the incarcerated youth.
"Even before they are released we want to see some behaviour modification — anger management, conflict resolution, respect for law and authority and planning for personal development," said Rotary President Manley Nicholson. He added that a major part of the project was to ensure that the young men did not go back to a life of crime after their release.
For Tamark, "this Rotary project is an opportunity for me to share my life with others, so I am looking forward to being a part of it. Members of the Miracle Club are also willing to take part in BACK2LIFE. We want to go out with Rotary and talk to the young men. I want to take persons from my club and community to go and talk with these young men coming in and out daily from the lock up. The more persons on board the better," he said.
A founding member of the Miracle Club, he is proud of the changes the club has made in his community.
"We do training courses and each person gets the Miracle Club Certificate afterwards. Having those short courses on a resumé looks good when you are going to get a job. I have the most certificates in the club because I never miss a training," said Tamark, who has also received a full scholarship from the Club to study Business Administration at the University College of the Caribbean. He has one year left to complete his degree.
Despite his having to juggle work, studies and family life — he is married with one child — Tamark still devotes time to mentoring.
"I do motivational speeches. I spoke with Les Brown at Sagicor's 2010 motivational seminar. I tell young men that life does not stop because you fall down. Don't stay down, get up, get moving and go on," he said. "You don't have to be rich to be a mentor. I am not rich. I don't drive a car, I take the bus, but I take the time to help those who I can."
Mentorship and volunteerism are ways of life he encourages others to try.
"Never write off anyone. Because someone is bad now does not mean that they will not change and adapt. They can come back to life. Charitable work is good. Volunteerism is very good. Persons can volunteer to make this a better place," Tamark, gangster turned mentor, said.