OLD TOWN — Born into a family of Gangster Disciple drug kingpins in Cabrini-Green, Raymond Richard never had a chance.
The tiny charismatic kid folks called "Lil' Ray" got "plugged" into the gang in elementary school — and dropped out to pursue work in the family dope business.
He hawked weed until he graduated to selling cocaine, then crack and heroin. At 14, he got sent to juvenile jail, where he proved his loyalty to the GDs by keeping his mouth shut.
Of course Richard carried a gun. He used it, too.
When he was 17, he got locked up in Cook County Jail on attempted murder charges.
In all, Richard spent 25 years in prison for a variety of offenses — selling dope, stealing, robbery and aggravated battery, among them.
He got hooked on cocaine and heroin, too — and got kicked out of the gang for being a junkie. When he wasn't locked up, Richard lived "the tramp life" on Lower Wacker Drive — panhandling by day, smoking crack at night.
In 2006, Richard reached his lowest and cried out to God from the bowels of the city: "This ain't living. ... Deliver me."
It took one more stint in prison — a four-year bid for robbing a store of toilet paper, soap and deodorant — before Richard got a clean start on a road to redemption.
He wrote a book of poetry about his transformation and mentored troubled kids on the South Side for two years. That's when he felt God call him to help kids facing a familiar hopelessness that has lingered in Cabrini-Green even though the infamous high rises have been torn down.
Now, at age 44, he's back in Cabrini-Green — and some folks say he's just in time.
As the calendar moves closer to the Chicago Board of Education's final decision on school closings on May 22, CPS officials still haven't released details on how they plan to protect kids on their walk to school.
One option — a plan proposed by a coalition of Near North community and church ministries — calls for hiring Richard and a collection of ex-gang members called Brothers Standing Together to keep kids safe on both sides of Division Street, the dividing line between gang turf.
"I don't think anyone else can create safe passage," said Brother Jim Fogarty, whose street ministry, Brothers and Sisters of Love, partnered with LaSalle Street Church to submit a safe passage proposal to CPS.
"Everyone else is an outsider. These young people aren't listening to anyone else. They might listen to adults who have street credibility and earn their respect. Ex-felons might get that respect."
While they wait for CPS to pick a safe passage, Brother Raymond and his crew of ex-gang members are on the street trying to end gang turf feuds blamed for beatings, shootings and murder.
"With the street cred we have, we can do it," Richard said. "We tell them, 'Look at us, if we can change, you can. We have worse rap sheets. Done more than you.' ... And they see these are the same cats from the block that had the pistols and the dope, and now they’re coming back to help us."
Richard's organization, Brothers Standing Together, has initiated talks with members of their former gangs in hopes of brokering peace before school starts next year.
"After taking so much from our community, maybe we can give back. We have children, cousins and nieces and nephews who will get caught up in this vicious cycle of violence," Richard says. "We're taking action now because this is real. This is not a game. I don't care who believes us, because in the end we're committed to seeing kids safe."
Ultimately, CPS will decide whether or not to trust a band of reformed felons to protect children on the walk to school in a part of town torn by generations-old gang feuds.
Fogarty said it's worth the try.
"I don't have any illusions about these guys. The guys we're talking with are clean. We're training them to work and live responsibly," he said. "I've been working in Cabrini for 26 years. Churches have come together many times and no one has been able to do it. I can't guarantee it's going to work, but I'm going to take a stab at it."
He's doing it for the kids, the community and Richard.
"Sometimes when people try to change their lives, guys like Ray, they run into so many frustrations. They can't make a living," Fogarty said. "This is a chance for them to prove themselves and to make a little money while they do it."
For kids living in gangland and Richard — a guy who never had a chance — that means everything.