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From anger to forgiveness: How one man's shooting led to a new program for Baltimore boys

The bullet that ripped a hole in Damion Cooper's chest left him bitter and angry. He spent more than four years raging against society. He questioned his faith in God.

The last thing he wanted to think about was forgiveness.

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Fourteen years later, Cooper runs a well-regarded program that teaches young boys to do what he once could not.

Twice a week, dozens of middle schoolers head to a gymnasium inside Baltimore's police academy to learn from Cooper. Most, he says, are there because they've had difficulty paying attention or controlling their impulses. Some have been suspended from school.

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Cooper founded Project Pneuma — the Greek word for breath — three years ago. Through martial arts, yoga and meditation, he teaches the middle school boys how to work through anger and into positivity.

"Since we started this program, not one of these boys has been suspended," says Cooper, 44. "All their grades have gone up."

The parents and educators who send their boys to Cooper's nonprofit say they notice a quick change in the boys' mindset after only a few sessions.

Nikomar Mosley, the principal of Gwynns Falls Elementary School, encourages students to attend.

"Some of the students had challenging behaviors and their behavior changed," Mosley says. "They've taken on leadership roles. Their grades improved because of the community accountability."

How did Damion Cooper go from being consumed with anger to being a force against it?

It's a story that begins on Oct. 13, 1992.

Cooper, then a wrestler at Coppin State University, was on a path to academic and athletic success. Hungry that afternoon for a home-cooked meal, he took a bus to his mom's home in East Baltimore. He was wearing headphones, listening to Boyz II Men. He didn't notice the two teens following him.

When he reached his family's doorstep, he sensed their presence and turned around. One of the teens was holding a gun. He was being initiated into a gang.

"You gotta do it now," the other teen said.

The bullet struck Cooper just above his heart. It ricocheted and cracked his sternum. It ricocheted and broke his ribs. It ricocheted and damaged the nerves in his right arm.

Cooper recalls feeling — and smelling — as if his body was on fire.

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Cooper's stepfather rushed down the stairs and grabbed him. The college student was bleeding internally, but he was more worried about distressing his mother.

"As the blood was coming up, I should have spit it out, but I didn't want my mother to see it," Cooper says. "So I kept swallowing it, and I was choking on my own blood."

On the ambulance ride to the Francis Scott Key Medical Center — now Johns Hopkins Bayview — a paramedic leaned down to him.

"Baby," she said, "if you close your eyes, you're not going to open them."

Cooper counted the passing street lights to stave off death.

Doctors saved Cooper's life that night in 1992, but the shooting took his joy. The former altar boy's faith in God was diminished. He dropped off the wrestling team and out of college.

"For four years, two months and 18 days, I became a very angry and bitter man," Cooper said. "I became that typical guy who just felt rage and anger because I didn't understand why I would get shot."

Cooper could tell his life was off course. He decided to attend a service at East Baltimore's New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, near his family's home. He planned to slip out during the offering, but the sermon grabbed his attention.

The message was from the Book of Psalms: "For his anger endures but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."

Cooper decided that verse was meant for him.

"I knew I had to let that pain go," he says. "If I didn't, it was going to just damage me."

Cooper went back to Coppin State and earned his degree. Then he enrolled in a master's degree program at United Baptist College and Seminary. He began volunteering as a mentor inside the Baltimore jail complex.

It was there, Cooper said, that he learned the depths of forgiveness.

Over a year and a half, Cooper worked closely with one of the inmates — and memories began to come back. He had recurring dreams about his shooting.

Before, his nightmares had focused on the gun, the spark and the bullet. But with each passing dream, the teen shooter's face came into greater focus.

One morning Cooper awoke. He was now certain.

"I realized this is the guy who shot me."

The next day, Cooper asked to meet with the young inmate.

They sat down and Cooper asked if there were any crimes he'd committed for which he'd never been caught. The mentor heard his mentee describe three unrelated incidents. But then he started telling a fourth story that was familiar.

"I sat there and listened to him walk me through the process of my shooting," Cooper said.

Once the young man was finished, Cooper unbuttoned his shirt, revealing his bullet wound. He looked the young man in the eyes and said simply: "You shot me."

"I broke down in tears," Cooper recalls. "He broke down in tears. I told this man to his face that I forgive him. I forgave a man who put a hole in my chest, who would have taken me away from my future wife and my future kids."

Cooper has agreed not to identify the man. But he says his former assailant is out of jail and doing well. He is married with two kids, has graduated from community college and is singing in the men's choir at his church.

The shooter and the victim talk on the phone every Saturday.

"This is the reason why I do Project Pneuma," Cooper says. "If I can forgive the man that shot me, I can teach these young boys they can forgive someone who talked about their shoes or talked about that they don't learn the same way others do," Cooper says.

Chaplain Christopher Wallace, who runs the ministry at the Baltimore jail complex, says Cooper's forgiveness was inspiring.

"He evolved and became a better person than he thought he could be," Wallace says. "I can't imagine that kind of love at that level. He understood that no one is born bad. Under the right circumstances people can turn around and make better decisions."

Cooper channels the lessons he learned from his personal journey into Project Pneuma

The program aims to guide boys intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. He says the kids he works with often have higher rates of obesity and are more likely to be the victims of violence than other boys.

The boys learn martial arts, yoga and meditation. They go hiking, camping and sailing — experiences boys in cities sometimes don't get. They study foreign languages and poetry.

All the while, Cooper and his fellow volunteers — all men — teach life lessons.

On a recent weeknight, about 25 boys in the class sit cross-legged and perfectly still balancing martial arts sticks.

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Cooper points out that the image clashes with negative stereotypes of black boys.

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"Society often says that many of our young African-American males can't sit still and focus for prolonged periods of time and tag them with many deficit-framing labels," Cooper says. "Well, I refuse to subscribe to that ideology."

Later, the boys repeated the words to a poem Cooper taught them.

"I choose self-esteem, not self-pity," they said in unison. "I choose to do things that others won't, so I can continue to do things others can't."

Cooper says he chose to hold the program at the Baltimore police academy because he wanted to dispel another myth: That police and black youths can't get along.

Officer Edward Gillespie, who helps with martial arts training and teaches the kids German, says the interactions are good for both the police and the students. He says they help break down oversimplified perceptions people have of each other.

"You can't just take a demographic of people and give them all the same characteristic," he says.

After the yoga session, Marques Howard, 13, an eighth-grader at Cross Country Middle School, says he initially bristled at the intense exercise Project Pneuma requires. But now he loves the program.

"When I started, I was the most hot-headed person," he says. "I've learned how to calm down a lot."

Marques' mother, Monique Morrisey, says it's important for him to hear a positive message from adults who are not his mother.

"I entered him in Project Pneuma because of his attitude and anger," she says. "He needed to channel it.

"I've noticed his attitude has changed. It has leveled out. They've taught him about chivalry and humility, and they really love these children."

Cooper says Project Pneuma is defined as much by what is as what it isn't. He makes parents sign a contract before their kids can attend.

The boys are not allowed to drink soda and must read for at least four hours each week.

He also bans certain words.

"We don't use, 'at-risk youth' and we don't use 'inner-city,'" Cooper says. "You'll never hear us say, 'underprivileged' or 'underserved,' because if we keep saying that, then they believe it. We talk about them being assets, builders and growers."

Cooper enjoys seeing the students' grades go up and their anger go away. He thinks every boy who is set on the right path is one fewer going down the wrong path.

"If you can see a young black boy smile — if you can help save a life — you can't beat that," Cooper says.

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