This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on May 29, 2007.
Two years ago, Wilmer Callejas was a 16-year-old gang member in East Oakland. He stole cars. He beat up rival gang members. He rode in cars involved in drive-by shootings.
Though he attended school, Callejas didn’t listen to adults or even his parents who warned him about the possible consequences of his behavior.
“What they said went in one ear and out the other,” he said.
In fact, with five arrests to his name, he’d spent time in juvenile detention, once serving as long as five months.
But that all changed when his 15-year-old girlfriend sat him down one day and told him she was pregnant.
"When she told me, my heart stopped,” Callejas said. “I was scared and didn’t know what to say.”
His girlfriend’s parents encouraged their daughter to have the baby, but they were skeptical about Callejas as a father.
“They thought I was a bad person,” he said, “and I was. But I decided I would do whatever it took to turn my life around.”
Callejas did what few teens in his situation ever manage to do. He found a way to leave the gang. “It was really hard to get out,” he said.
Dressed in jeans and a white In-N-Out Burger shirt, Callejas sat down with classmate Miguel Morales for an interview at Horizon High School to talk about their lives and hopes since becoming fathers.
The school, located in Pleasanton, is open to Tri-Valley school-aged parents, and provides high school curriculum, pre-natal and parenting skills training, counseling and therapy services, personal finance and budgeting, employability skills, and even an on-site childcare facility that doubles as a laboratory for soon-to-be parents.
Most of the 50 students enrolled at Horizon are mothers.
In fact, Callejas and Morales attend the school with their girlfriends—their babies’ mothers. And the couples bring their babies with them.
“We all go to school here,” said Callejas, smiling.
Unlike Callejas who is a junior, Morales, 19, will graduate this June. “I’d dropped out of school in Livermore and was starting to affiliate with gang members when my girlfriend got pregnant,” Morales said, crediting both his girlfriend with encouraging him to go back to school and the low student-to-teacher ratio at the school for helping him be successful academically.
Since enrolling at Horizon, Morales has earned all the credits needed for a diploma. He’s passed the high school exit exam, interned at the City of Pleasanton, gotten a job at Mervyns Department Store, and now supports a son—14-month-old Gabriel.
Both fathers live with their girlfriends and babies. Morales lives in Livermore at the home of his girlfriend’s parents, and Callejas lives in Oakland in his parents’ home.
“I pay rent to my parents for a room for the three of us,” said Callejas, who works at In-N-Out Burger near the Oakland Airport. Callejas said he also pays for car insurance and gas.
Both young fathers have hopes after high school. Callejas wants to become an auto mechanic or work in auto body repair and Morales plans to attend a trade school in Hayward to learn glass cutting.
As for other plans, when asked about marriage, the young men shifted in their chairs and smiled, and seemed a little embarrassed. In retrospect the question was premature.
What isn’t premature, though, is the devotion and commitment and the love in Callejas’ eyes whenever he steps into the daycare center and lifts his 18-month old daughter Analicia into his arms.
“My daughter has changed my life,” he said.