Shooting survivor breathes new life into young Baltimore men of tomorrow

Posted at 9:00 AM, Apr 28, 2017
and last updated 2018-12-13 14:21:54-05

Group think is pressuring children into committing violent crimes in Baltimore.

One local man is looking to curb that mentality and help kids realize they're the cornerstone to a stronger Baltimore.

For four years, two months and 18 days, Damion Cooper held onto something that changed his outlook on life. His project is now saving young men and giving them a positive focus.

This story is part of a three-part series entitled, "Baltimore: Through Their Eyes," which looks into the perspective of people growing up in west Baltimore. Read Part 1 of the series by reporter Skyler Henry.

On March 7, a group of children, including a 12-year-old boy, attacked a man for his cellphone on Baltimore Street--an easy target as the students came home from school.

T.J. Smith, spokesperson for the Baltimore City Police Department, says several members of the group were arrested, but not before they attacked another man.

"We have to look at this as a problem that's affecting all of us as a community because realistically one of these kids could influence your child,” Smith said.

Around the same time that incident took place, Damion Cooper was making sure those came influences didn’t affect his boys--all 40 of them.

"A lot of times our young people don't have any kind of outlets. They're coming from trauma in their homes and their neighborhoods and so they're acting off of impulses of things they see,” Cooper said.

Damion founded Project PNEUMA, a place for young men to escape the daily sounds of gunshots, blaring sirens and flapping crime tape. A safe place for them to learn, to meditate and to grow, both physically and mentally.

"They hear words like 'at risk youth' or 'disenfranchised.' They hear 'poor.' They hear 'inner city,' but these kids need to understand that they're assets, builders and growers and that they do matter and we do care,” Damion said.

The man guiding children down the right path experienced a life-changing moment of his own while in college. One that almost killed him.

"I got right beside my home and I felt someone behind me and when I turned around, one of the guys pulled out a gun and pulled the trigger and shot me at point blank range,” Cooper said.

The bullet narrowly missed his heart.

"Baltimore has become a very unforgiving city and so if we can teach these men to forgive and take a deep breath, it can slow some things down and keep them out of those pitfalls,” Cooper said.

Pitfalls that lead to jail or death.

In the last year, there were more than 400 carjackings in the city. A majority of those were by children, including one that involved teens beating up and robbing Councilwoman Rikki Spector. Add on a total of five juvenile homicide suspects and 15 juvenile homicide victims in 2016, and Smith says it’s a problem.

"We're not going to be able to arrest our way out of problem. What kind of person do you think we're creating when you have a 13-year-old with ten charges? What type of viable adult do you think that we're creating by consistently locking that person up,” Smith asked rhetorically.

It’s why Damion made it his priority to invest in those he calls the future.

"This is when they'll either climb the mountain or fall off the cliff, so if we can get them here. We can get them prepared and set mentally, physically, and spiritually for high school and beyond,” Cooper said.

Damion says he’s had parents reach out to him from as far away as Harrisburg, Penn. to get their kids involved in Project PNEUMA.