Story One

In 2007 after spending 17 years in state prison, then 37-year-old Eric Gelmete had two choices if he continued on the road he was heading — kill or be killed.

"I had limited choices. It seemed like someone would kill me or I would kill someone," he said. "I had these dreams. I would enter my house. I would click on a light, and bang, somebody kills me."

Gelmete said he started using drugs again as he contemplated what route to take, but this time he had the good sense to commit himself and get some help.

With a lengthy record for drugs, robberies and guns, Gelmete could not find a job until Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction gave him a chance and hired him in 2008. "They saved my life," he said.

He taught life skills in the schools and even spoke about his gang life at some colleges. Then a strange thing happened. He started feeling good about himself.

"I started thinking maybe I could do this. I started thinking more positively," he said. "A lot of things remained the same. The thing that changed was me."

Story Two

Marcus DePina was 22 back in 2010 and had just spent 3½ years in jail. Out of prison for 40 days, he did not have a job and admittedly was hanging with "the wrong person." His future looked bleak.

The two were arrested on drug and gun charges, and DePina was on his way back to jail. (He still maintains his innocence seven years later, saying he was "just hanging" with the guy, and was not involved in any criminal activity.)

"I called my longtime girlfriend and said, 'I'm going back to jail.' She said, 'I'm pregnant. You should have gone to the doctor's appointment with me.'"

He didn't know she might be pregnant, he said. He didn't know about the doctor's visit.

DePina got lucky. The drugs in his case were handled by Annie Dookhan, the state chemist caught tampering and falsifying evidence, and first DePina's bail was lowered and then the charges were thrown out completely.

Despite his second chance, his poor decision-making cost him dearly. He spent 21 months in jail awaiting trial and missed his daughter's birth and many of her first moments.

"I missed everything — first teeth, first steps, first words. But the way I look at it, if I didn't miss that I would still be living that life," he said. "I had to reevaluate my priorities. I was no longer living my life for myself.

"I couldn't see another man raising my child," he said. "Ever since then, I have been on the right track. That was the scariest part of my life."

Turning points

Gelmete's turning point came while he was still a member of the Monte Park street gang; DePina's while a member of the rival United Front street gang.

The two men, described by police as onetime hardcore gang members for rival gangs, nowadays work side-by-side and share laughs and ideas for YouthBuild, trying to help teens avoid making the same mistakes they did.

YouthBuild is a nationwide program active in urban communities whose goal is to help youths who have not been successful in traditional high schools turn their lives around. They focus on both education and work on local construction projects.

Gelmete, now 48, is a case manager who meets with 15 to 20 students between the ages of 16 and 24 once a week and talks with them about gangs and drugs. DePina, now 29, whose daughter is now 6, is an outreach worker trying to motivate kids with a message of hope. "I'm the proof of the pudding," he said.

Gelmete was part of the gang life for 22 years — from 1985 to 2007 — and carried and shot a gun, sold drugs, robbed people and has been shot. He also once was a heroin addict. "I robbed so many people. I'm not proud of it. I needed to do what I had to do," he said.

Growing up in the inner city

Gelmete was born and raised in the Monte Park area in the near South End. "Monte Park was my family. The amount of money you could make (selling drugs) for that time was mesmerizing for a 15-year-old kid," he said. "Once you get a taste of it, it is very hard to turn your back on it and do something else."

His grandmother raised him and when she died in 1982, when he was 12, his supervision died with her, he said. 

Born and raised in the West End's United Front housing development (now Temple Landing), DePina said, "I was a follower. I came from a good home. My mom worked two jobs."

But his father died at age 11 and by the time he was 13 his three older brothers were in jail. It was just he and his mother and he wanted to be "the man."

DePina turned to selling cocaine to support his family. His criminal actions include carrying a gun, shooting a gun and getting shot and stabbed.

"At the time, I thought it was the right thing. Now I know it is wrong," DePina said of his decision to sell cocaine. "I don't regret it. I feel like now I'm helping people. I think it gives them hope. I was never forced to do anything. I chose to do it."

Turf battles and pride

The two men said the long-standing bitterness between Monte Park and United Front is about turf, respect, pride, money, power and a rivalry that is born out of blood. They also said it existed before them. 

Gelmete said he was at Monte Park as a kid many days from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. and saw "money, power and respect" flashed in his face. "I wanted that in the worst way," he said.

"It's your block. You don't let anyone sh-- on your block," he said. "When you don't have anything, I would die for this."

He carried a gun and when he did, he felt it made him powerful, he said. "It's about reputation. It's about power," Gelmete said. "You lose someone you care about, and it just continues. It's 2017 and the cycle still is." 

The men said the intensity between the gangs increases when a friend is shot or killed and the killer gets away with it. 

"I had no clue where it started. A friend got murdered and I said, 'I want in," DePina said. "It was a rivalry."

Respect and excitement

Angry and without any money, DePina said he got respect by being a member of the United Front gang. "I want to be like that. I want to be legendary," he said.

The men said the gang life is exciting for someone so young, and it gave them the things they didn't get at home.

"It's that family acceptance and if you don't get it from your family, you make that commitment to your boys and you live by that," Gelmete said.

"You're looking for that family bond. I found it in a gang," DePina said, explaining it provides a sense of security that was missing in his life. "It's self-destructive, but you don't realize it. No one can touch you. That's how you feel.

"It's a sad lifestyle. It's a sad mentality to have," he said.

YouthBuild

Working for YouthBuild, Gelmete and DePina said they see young versions of themselves all the time as they try to convince teenage boys that they have potential regardless of what they have been told. Gangs, they say, are not the answer.

Gelmete now works two jobs — YouthBuild and the third shift for the Women's Addiction Center. In the winter, he grabs a third job working as a longshoreman. He started working for YouthBuild in November 2015.

He lives with his girlfriend and the two became engaged in 2015. He has five children, he said, and has relationships with all of them now. He is also proud of something very simple — that he has a legitimate driver's license.

"I love my life. Kids come in here and I say, 'That's me.' You try to peel back the layers and show them their potential," he said. "I've been there. I've done that.

"You don't get rich on this job (Youth Build). But there are other things. You can help someone get a job. There's something to be said for a filled heart," he said.

Role models

It's the same for DePina, who has been working for Youth Build since September 2015. "I look in the mirror and I see me, and I want them to look at me and see themselves," he said.

DePina is studying human services at Bristol Community College and has dreams of one day becoming a clinical counselor.

"If I can do it, anyone can do it," he said.

Both men said they feel New Bedford needs more education and intervention programs and more teen jobs to make gangs look less appealing to at-risk kids.

Gelmete described it as a race to get to young minds before they become influenced by the gangs. He is a believer in talking to boys as early as grade school about the dangers of gangs.

"Get them before someone else gets them," he said.

DePina said he thinks there's a deterrent in exposing young people to things outside New Bedford, teaching them there is a whole world outside the SouthCoast city. He also believes there should be a teen center.

Jobs in the city

And there should be more jobs for inner city teens to put money in their pockets and develop a work ethic, the men said. Once they get a criminal record, the chances of landing a job decrease substantially, they said.

DePina recalled that he was turned down for a job at a fast-food restaurant because of his criminal record.

"Everybody's first job is at a fast-food restaurant. If I can't get into a fast-food restaurant, I don't think I can a get a job period," he remembered thinking to himself.

He believes at-risk teens should receive an education in the value of life. They are exposed to gangsters and drugs and need to be taught that the lifestyle is fraught with danger.

Both Gelmete and DePina said they are happy with the choices they made when they were at the crossroads.

"My life is awesome. I work a lot. I love my life. I'm a different person now," Gelmete said. "I'm a citizen. My life is not at risk anymore. I get to help people."

"I feel better than I've ever felt in my life. I feel reassured that every day I'm doing the right thing," DePina said. "I feel nothing can stop me. I feel like I have a whole new way to live." 

 Follow Curt Brown on Twitter @CurtBrown_SCT