Editor's Note: Join us in celebrating the 25th anniversary of Omega Boys Club, an organization co-founded by Ashoka Fellow Joseph Marshall who was first elected into the Ashoka fellowship in 2004. In his message commemorating the anniversary, Joseph gives some history and shares what the organization has accomplished since it's early years. See the ABC7 TV spot about the Omega Boys Club at the end of this post.
It’s the silver anniversary of the Omega Boys Club. 25 years. A whole quarter of a century. It’s really hard to believe—the time has gone by so fast. What can I say? How can I fit 25 years into a few paragraphs? One thing I do know for sure, though: it’s definitely time to celebrate!
When Omega opened its doors in February of 1987 to 15 young people from the streets of San Francisco, we had no idea that it would become the renowned life-saving program that it is today. Back then, something seemed to be happening every day—the drugs, the gangs, the turf wars, the funerals. We had enough of it and we knew that something had to be done. Omega was that something.
I was a public school teacher back then and the violence had spilled over into my own classroom. I remember one young man in particular who was killed in a turf war between two neighborhoods; he was in my math class one day and dead the next. I couldn’t even go to his funeral—I was too much in shock.
Unfortunately, there were more horror stories. I only had the kids for a few hours a day; the streets had them the rest. I needed more time with them.
So on February 26, 1987, the Omega Boys Club opened its doors to my students and their friends. My cofounder, Jack Jacqua, and I weren’t even sure they would show up, but they came and they stayed. And then more came and more stayed. “Alive and Free …and Educated” became their motto. Beating the streets became their goal. But could we—all of us—really do it?
25 years later, the answer is a resounding YES! YES! YES!
By treating violence as a communicable disease, Omega Boys Club’s work has kept more than 10,000 young people in the Bay Area alive and free—from both violence and incarceration—and has trained nearly 4,000 people in detention facilities, schools, community based organizations, and treatment centers to stop violence in their communities. The city of San Francisco has even adopted the Alive & Free methodology and directly addresses risk factors, which identifies and directly addresses risk factors, as its uniform violence prevention philosophy. In addition, 24 cities across the U.S., South Africa, Thailand, and Canada are replicating this program.
But milestones and numbers and awards aren’t the full story. For me they aren’t even the best part of the story. It’s the human and personal impact that Omega has had that’s most satisfying. It’s being able to use video to inspire young people in Haiti to stay safe and off the streets. . It’s taking a call on Sunday night on the Street Soldiers radio show from someone who’s reaching out for help. . It’s the Consortium retreats and the national Alive & Free conferences where street soldiers from around the world come together to learn how to say no to violence and focus on treatment and recovery. It’s a young man sitting in a South African juvenile jail who tells me in broken English: “Dr. Marshall, I want to stay Alive and Free. Thank you for coming here.” It’s the wall of fame at the Omega Boys Club—pictures of all the college graduates, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and earn a degree. It’s all the Tuesday nights at Omega—1,300 of them—and the Tuesday nights yet to come.
So yes, it’s time to celebrate. Time to look back and reflect on all that we’ve been able to achieve—and look forward to how much more we’re going to do. We’ve gone from the street corners of San Francisco to the four corners of the world. It’s extremely gratifying to know that we’ve been able to make good on the commitment we made 25 years ago. Our guiding principle—“The more you know, the more you owe”—has served us well.
Bring on the next 25.