The Heartful Dodger

A charismatic ex-con lures at-risk kids away from violence.

By Alix Sharkey for DailyGood, Feb 2, 2012

is father, a junkie and career criminal, had schooled Ferraro in the trade.

You’re the man of the house now,” he had told Ferraro over the phone from prison—meaning Ferraro was expected to sell drugs to support his mother, also an addict, and two sisters.

In fact, Ferraro couldn’t remember a time before drugs or the constant, gut-gnawing menace and paranoia that came with the game: he’d first smuggled heroin into jail for his old man when he was ten.

Ferraro and his teenage gang ran these streets, ready to pounce on anybody who didn’t belong. Nothing personal, just territorial duty. That night, it was a homeless man.

They fanned out and surrounded him before he knew what was happening.

As the gang closed in for the ritual beating—fists, boots, and bats (nobody would bother pulling a gun on a bum)—their terrified victim looked directly at Ferraro and started pleading, “Please help me.”

“Help you?” Ferraro said. “Why should I help you?”

“You’ve got more compassion in your eyes than any woman I’ve ever met,” gabbled his prey.

It was a crazy, “Hail Mary” line by any standards, but it hit Ferraro like an uppercut. He was unable to continue the beating.

That exchange on a wintry night in 1982 is one that Ferraro continues to relive. But these days, as the Teacher Training Director of the Mind Body Awareness Project, it’s Ferraro who is looking into angry young eyes until he finds a glimpse of compassion.

Based in Oakland, California, the MBA Project is a nonprofit organization that uses mindfulness and emotional intelligence exercises to equip disadvantaged and underserved youth with the tools to make better decisions and to consider more skillful options than violence, self-harm, drugs, and crime.

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