Lazarrius Taylor had been shot and arrested by the time he was 14 years old. Motivated by a desire to make his grandmother proud, and with the mentoring of The Brotherhood Crusade, Taylor now has a bright future.
Taylor remembers the moment that changed him: he was 14 years old and being arrested not far from the apartment he lived in with his grandmother, Velma Ellington.
Ellington was walking down the street in the direction of the police cars when she saw her grandson and just shook her head.
"She completely messed me up when she shook her head because I want my grandmother to be proud of me," Taylor said. "I want her to be able to look at me and say my grandson … is positive."
Taylor’s grandmother remembers that night, too.
"He said, 'I was so stupid.' And I told him, ‘Don’t be stupid. You know right from wrong,'" Ellington recalled.
Taylor grew up in South Los Angeles. Ellington said there, the wrong path is just one step away and "you got to be a strong, strong person to stay on the….right path."
From a young age, Talyor had challenges. His mom died when he was 7 years old. His dad "disappeared" and his older brother was in jail.
"It was broken, my home was broken," Taylor said.
Taylor went to live with Ellington, but he said he needed a father figure. So, he "went to the streets" to try and find one, he said.
He began hanging out with gang members, and said he felt accepted.
"I always thought…I would get the help. Somebody would motivate me, but it was only motivation to do wrong," he said.
Then the real trouble started.
One night Taylor was hanging out on the streets late. He knew he should be in, and his grandmother had told him to come home.
He had basketball game the next day, and he knew he needed a good night’s sleep. His incarcerated brother had warned him just days earlier about the dangers of hanging out late at night. But still, he wanted to hang out with his "real friends."
"I was chilling. We were smoking marijuana, drinking liquor, then a car just came out of nowhere and just started blasting. I got shot. It was just like, wow, I couldn’t believe it," Taylor recalled.
He shakes his head as he tells the story, as if he now, three years later, he still can’t believe it. But Taylor has a constant reminder of that night.
"The bullet is currently still in my leg," he said.
Taylor was 14 years old when he was shot, but even that experience was not enough to get him to change his behavior.
Not long after the shooting he was involved in a robbery. That was when he was arrested. That
was when his grandmother gave him "that look."
"I truly felt there was nothing possible to be done that could turn me around," he said.
His probation officer encouraged him to get involved with the Brotherhood Crusade, an organization that works to empower young men one at a time in the hopes of up-lifting
the entire community.
Special program administrator George Weaver said the work is both critical and inspiring.
"There is no greater feeling than knowing that, despite all the opposition, members of a community can pull together and change lives," Weaver said.
Weaver believes that everyone is connected to the success of their neighbors, and boys like Taylor.
"What happens to the least of us happens to all of us," he said. "California cannot thrive unless all of its communities are able to thrive."
To that end the brotherhood crusade provides free services – that include academic assistance – counseling and "brother to brother" mentoring.
The experience – and the mentors – immediately resonated with Taylor.
"They’ve been the same age as me, they grew up in the same hood as me, and then they understood like, this is not it," Taylor said. "So that kind of made me see, OK, so this is not it."
Many of the services provided by the Brotherhood Crusade are accomplished in partnerships with corporations or county services.
The Bloom Program, run at the LA County of Probation, focuses on "building a lifetime of options and opportunities for men." There, the boys are taught basic personal skills. And that had an immediate impact for Taylor’s confidence.
"Just eye contact and shaking hands, and when you greet a person, make sure you speak with intelligence and speak loudly so they can hear you," he said.
Taylor began to thrive. Then came an opportunity he never dreamed possible.
"They actually sent me to Africa, the biggest thing ever," he said.
Through a partnership with the Sports Education Leadership Foundation, Taylor was able to go on a life-changing service trip.
Weaver said the trip was intended to increase Taylor’s empathy for others and give him a better sense of community. Taylor seemed truly stunned by his own experience.
"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "It was just like, wow, there’s so much poverty out there. It teaches you to appreciate what you have. Just love life."
He went to build huts and he shared his athletic talent with the kids there.
"I was teaching kids just basic dribbling, how to shoot. They didn’t know anything about basketball basically," he said. "I felt like Kobe Bryant out there because they were just like, 'Wow, this guy really knows how to play basketball.' I loved it."
Taylor is a changed young man. He is motivated and, he said, ready for the future. Now, three years after his grandmother gave him "that look," Taylor has achieved one of the goals he set for himself.
In a soft but certain voice Velma Ellington said: "I am real proud of him."
Probation officials say Taylor has benefitted from a new approach to probation that includes working with community-based groups, like the Brotherhood Crusade, and that his success matters to kids who currently struggle with what road to take.
Cynthia Lee was Taylor’s probation officer and has seen value in the work of the Brotherhood Crusade for troubled kids.
"It opens up the door for them to see there is hope and opportunity to them," Lee said.
Once desperately searching for a role model in his community, Taylor now is one.
"You know, just being a motivator, just doing everything right, so everyone can look up and say, 'OK, he grew up in South Central, just like us, he came from a family just like us, we can do it,'" Taylor said.
This spring he will be the first member of his family to graduate from high school. And he wants to go to college in Louisiana and then return home to possibly become a youth counselor.
Taylor has a tattoo on his right forearm in honor of his mother. He says when thinks of her, he believes she is looking down on him saying, "That’s my boy."