On a quest to save the next kid at Blessed Sacrament Teen Center

For a while last week, Jim Kozy entertained an idea that he thought might persuade the kids to listen.

He would get a photo of Omar Castel lying dead on the pavement and he'd hang it on a wall in the Blessed Sacrament Teen Center.

Let the kids see Omar's body. Let them be shocked, if shock was the only way to save them from Omar's fate.

Let them see that this is where the gang life leads, to a bloody death on a street corner, two blocks from their teen center.

In the end, Kozy didn't hang the photograph, but that leaves him not knowing what to do.

"This was a savable kid," he said when I went to see him Friday in the South Side neighborhood of McKinley Park. He seemed weary.

If you can't save the savable kids, who can you save?

Summer has been slow up in the second-floor youth center, above the sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, where Kozy, 57, has worked since he was in his 20s.

Without air conditioning, the big space has been too hot for playing volleyball on the net strung between two old columns, or for shooting hoops in the single basket under the low ceiling, almost too hot for pecking on a keyboard in the computer room.

But come fall, 50 to 60 kids a day will traipse up the worn stairs and over the chipped green-and-white linoleum floor to play and to work and to find refuge from temptation.

Omar Castel used to be one of those kids.

Omar helped paint the place. Just a few months ago, he participated in one of the center's overnight retreats. On the Sunday before he died, he stopped by to help clean up after the parish carnival.

At one point, it's true, Omar was kicked out of the center — kids who behave badly are banished, if only for a while — but then Kozy ran into him on the street.

"Omar, do you want to come back?" Kozy asked that day.

"I'll think about it," Omar said.

Not long afterward, Omar appeared in the old room, relaxed, friendly, handsome as ever and free of what Kozy calls "the attitude."

Saved. It seemed.

On a Friday morning in late August, Kozy, who still lives in the neighborhood, woke up early to the chirping of text messages.

Omar, at the age of 17, had been shot shortly after midnight. Two bullets, one to the head.

Kozy knows plenty about the neighborhood gangs — the difference between a crew and a gang, the streets that divide one gang from another — but he had hoped against the recent rumors that gang life had seduced Omar.

CHICAGO

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