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

Mary Schmich

September 15, 2013

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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.

And even if Omar was in a gang, Kozy knew him as a good young man.

"If I called him and said, 'Omar, we need to move this pile of crap from here to here,'" Kozy said, gesturing around the center, tears in his eyes, "he'd come."

Years ago, when Kozy signed on as the church's youth minister, McKinley Park was on the cusp of change. The immigrant groups who had settled the area were moving out. New immigrants were moving in.

Kozy stayed. He worked for a while at Kozy's Cyclery, the popular Chicago bike shop founded by his father, but more and more he was drawn to the youth ministry at the church where he'd been baptized, across the street from the house where he grew up.

The job eventually became full time, and as the neighborhood evolved, so did his work. It was less about taking kids on recreational jaunts, more about keeping them in school, protecting them from violence.

He remembers the first of his kids to be killed.

"I still have his holy card," he said. He walked to his office, fetched a small memorial card.

A boy named Michael. 1974-2000.

Last week, Kozy went to a CAPS community policing meeting. He stood and spoke about Omar, wondering where the outrage was. His neighbors, he fears, have learned to live with the violence. His kids too.

That's why he thought about putting the photo of Omar's body on display.

"I wanted the kids to see the connection," he said, "that any group that promotes violence is going to lead to laying in the street, dead."

I asked Kozy if Omar's death had temporarily knocked the wind out of him.

Sitting at an old desk in the teen center, he looked down and began to fish through his briefcase, as if to hide his tears.

"Not temporarily," he said.

Then he recovered. If only the center could get more money, he said, to hire more help — grants have dried up, the budget has been cut — maybe they could accomplish more.

"You have to have faith that what you do actually works," he said.

Does he have that faith?

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I do."

And after someone at the CAPS meeting last week mentioned that a 14-year-old boy, one of the center's kids, had recently joined a gang, he went to the boy's house.

Maybe this one could be saved.

mschmich@tribune.com