Local Sister and Dominican Hospital help ex-gang members remove their tattoos
The Dominican Hospital Tattoo Removal Program is housed in the Rehab Services Building on Frederick Street in Santa Cruz. At the end of a long, chaotic corridor full of wheelchairs, the office door is wide open. Sister Maureen Keeler waits inside.
“The purpose of our program is to help stem the violence in Santa Cruz and surrounding counties by the removal of gang-related tattoos,” she says. “Also, to help the patient be able to continue on with their lives, gain employment and do whatever they may be dreaming about for their future.”
Here, in exchange for 20 hours of community service, people receive a clean slate on which to build a future most thought they'd never have. For many, tattoo removal is a chance to create a new identity, to start over, find a job and distance themselves from a violent or troubled past. But it's a procedure that most would never be able to afford on their own.
“Patients often say that they do not know what they would do if we didn't have this program,” says Keeler, who took over as program coordinator in 2001. “It's a very important step for those who are trying to leave gang life.”
At any given time, the Dominican Hospital Tattoo Removal Program provides more than 300 individuals access to low-cost tattoo removal services. Since 1997, when the program was first started, hundreds of people, most under 21 years old, have had their unwanted tattoos removed. Three quarters of the patients are ex-gang members.
“The program is instrumental in helping people leave a gang-related life to qualify for employment,” says Sam Leask, executive director of the Dominican Hospital Foundation. “It's also important for self image. And, removing that part of themselves … can be extremely expensive.”
A gang tattoo could be as simple as a few dots, a teardrop, numbers, letters, or a more complex image, such as a rose. The face, hands and neck are the most commonly tattooed areas.
“Removing the tattoo doesn't mean it's all over, but it might symbolize to the person themselves that they're making a change,” says David Beaudry, the outreach coordinator at Barrios Unidos, a Santa Cruz nonprofit that works with youth to provide prevention and alternatives to gang involvement.
Leaving a gang can be a life-threatening decision —one that Beaudry knows well. He was once a member of the Echo Park gang in Los Angeles. Rather than quitting all at once, he says most ex-members escape by taking careful “baby steps.”
In the wrong circumstances, Beaudry says, a gang tattoo can become a life or death issue, or cause a prison sentence to be increased.
A gang tattoo will “scream loud and clear in a courtroom,” he says, telling prosecutors that the person on trial should be charged with a gang enhancement. The result is a stiffer sentence. These are among the reasons that ex-gang members are choosing to have their tattoos removed, Beaudry adds.
A Second Chance
For ex-gang member Rose Luerra, meeting Sister Maureen was one of many stops on the long road of turning her life around.
Luerra got her first tattoos at 16 years old. Soon, she had gang tattoos on her face, hands, chest and back.
“My life was just completely out of control,” Luerra remembers. “It took a lot of years at the school of hard knocks to finally decide to get my life together and know that I was worth something.”
Now, as the Youth Programs Manager for the California Youth Outreach in Santa Clara County, Luerra is able to draw on her own experiences to connect with the youth.
For years, she told herself that her tattoos helped her to forge bonds with the kids whose lives she was dedicated to changing. It wasn't until she was in her thirties that Luerra began to seriously consider tattoo removal. It was a difficult decision—her tattoos were a part of her identity. They had been with her for a long time.
Once she started the process, removing her tattoos took nearly three years. Luerra found herself relying on Sister Maureen for encouragement.
“The love that she has when people come in is so genuine,” Luerra says. “She makes people feel so comfortable, and she's educated herself to understand what they're going through mentally and emotionally by getting these tattoos removed. She has such sensitivity for gang members.”
Removing a tattoo is far more painful and difficult than getting one. Pulses of intense light are aimed at the tattoo pigment, causing it to break up. Then, the body's immune system will move fluids, in the form of swelling and redness, to the area to help flush away the ink.
“They drop amounts of fire on your flesh and you can literally smell your flesh burning,” Luerra says to describe her experience. “It's a stench you can never get rid of or forget.”
After each session, she remembers leaving the Rehab Services building “a bloody mess.”
Instead of going home to recuperate, Luerra would drive directly to work, an alternative placement academy where juveniles go to avoid jail. The kids there were second and third offenders. Most were already gang members.
At the school, the instructors would line the kids up. Luerra, with patches of gauze seeping blood on her face, hands, chest and back, would walk between the rows of young gang members.
“If you want to get tattoos and later in life you want to get a job,” Luerra recalls telling them, “then this is what you're going to have to do.”
It sounds theatrical, but it was the right kind of shock and awe tactics to open the eyes of even the most jaded youths.
“The kids were just completely blown away,” she says. “But I wanted to make
Making it Possible
Making an impact is something Sister Maureen understands. Raised in Detroit, Mich., she attended a school staffed by Catholic Dominican Sisters.
These Sisters had an impact on young Maureen Keeler, prompting her to join the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, who serve in ministries of education, healthcare and social service. In 1967, the Sisters of Adrian opened Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. They co-sponsor Catholic Healthcare West, the healthcare system that Dominican Hospital belongs to.
In 2001, Sister Maureen moved from San Diego, where she was a school principal, to Santa Cruz to take over the Service Coordinator position in the Dominican Hospital Tattoo Removal Program.
Sister Maureen is motivated by her faith and passion for helping the underprivileged. She often ventures into the community to spread the world about the Dominican Hospital tattoo removal program, visiting Youth Services, the Women's Center and the Watsonville Minimum Security Facility to let gang members know that there are avenues for changing their lives.
The program's selection process forces applicants to take responsibility for this change—youths are required to either have a job or be enrolled in school.
Interested applicants must first call Keeler's office. Her first question is always, “Where are your tattoos?” If she determines that the person is unable to hide their tattoos, then they can qualify for the program.
Next, they answer a series of 18 questions. If she is satisfied, she instructs them to find an organization, preferably a nonprofit, where they can do 20 hours of community service.
Once they have documented their community service, the actual tattoo removal process can begin. Sessions are typically brief, with doctors helping an average of five patients an hour. Yet even a small tattoo can take for to five sessions to remove.
A tattoo removal session costs $10 if a person is under 21, and $50 if they are older. This fee includes the take home medication. In a private doctor's office, laser tattoo removal sessions could cost as much as $400 each.
The program was established in 1997 through the Youth Resource Bank of Santa Cruz County, the TagAway Program, and Dr. Morgan Magid, a local dermatologist who is now the medical director of the program. The program is funded by the community through the Dominican Hospital Foundation and by occasional donations from the Packard Foundation, which helped purchase the expensive laser equipment when the program was first started.
The program costs the Dominican Hospital Foundation about $40,000 each year and is staffed by 10 local doctors who volunteer their time. Some are plastic surgeons and others are dermatologists.
“The doctors at Dominican, they have no idea the impact they have on society,” says ex-gang member Luerra. “They have allowed a gang member to live in society because they have removed these tattoos. They have given them a second chance.”
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