ARTESIA — After years of gang violence, during which he was shot in the leg and one of his best friends was shot to death, Frank Bennett got drunk, put a rifle to his chest and pulled the trigger.
The suicide attempt 10 years ago left Bennett paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, but his gang activities continued.
"The only thing I couldn't do was walk," Bennett, 28, said recently. "I was into partying, hanging out, taking drugs, marijuana, coke, anything that I could get."
Frank Bennett abandoned his gang life style more than a year ago. He became a Christian, stopped gang-banging, and returned to school full time. Three weeks ago, he received a high school diploma from ABC Unified School District's adult school.
He also received a congressional commendation in recognition of his academic achievement. He was awarded a $200 scholarship, and plans to enroll at Cerritos College in the fall.
"After I accepted Christ, I had the desire to go back and finish school," said Bennett, who dropped out of Gahr High in 1978 during his junior year after being shot by rival gang members.
Bennett had been a gang member in an Artesia area known as Chivas. For years, his gang has fought with the rival Varrio gang in nearby Norwalk and with gangs from nearby areas.
"They would drive by and shoot into the house," Bennett said. "My mom's car was set on fire and burned. Once, a young lady sitting on the sofa was wounded in the neck by a bullet.
"We retaliated. I won't be specific but we always retaliated. It was an eye for an eye."
A high school friend was shot and killed by a rival gang. And when he was a high school junior Bennett was shot in the leg, forcing him off the track team.
He said he decided to drop out of school after officials demanded that he switch to continuation school.
Bennett now goes into the neighborhoods in his wheelchair, preaching Christianity and pleading with gang members to quit gang life.
Urges Return to School
Gangs are "a waste of life, especially for young people," he says. "I wasted my early years. I now urge youth not to do the same. I tell them to finish school and make a better life for themselves."
When Bennett tells them it is never too late, he can point to himself as an example. He dropped out of school 11 years before he finally received his diploma.
During graduation ceremonies, Bennett was presented with a U.S. Congressional Recognition Award from the office of Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), whose 38th Congressional District includes the school district.
"This was a significant achievement given for great personal effort. I feel really good about the accomplishment of this young man from Artesia," said Jim Weisenberg, ABC school board member who presented the award.
A mediocre student during his regular high school days, Bennett said he received mostly A's and Bs his last year of adult school.
"Frank was one of our oldest graduates. He was also a good student," said Marilyn Ghysels, who has been teaching at the adult school for 11 years. "Frank had been coming to adult school off and on since 1985. But the past year, he was motivated. Something happened. He turned the corner," Ghysels said.
Thought About Suicide
Bennett said he started going to church about four years ago, but still was taking drugs. About a year and a half ago, he contemplated another suicide attempt. "I put a loaded rifle to my head but something told me no," he said.
Bennett said he was helped by a support group that included Larry Rodriguez, 29, a former gang member and a minister in the New Heart Street Ministry, a program that attempts to persuade gang members to give up gangs and drugs.
Bennett, Rodriguez, and another former gang member, Ralph Teran, 33, grew up in the Southeast area and are friends.
"We walk the streets and tell the gang members, especially the young ones, about the dangers of gang activities and drugs," said Rodriguez, a Cerritos College graduate who is an electrician for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts.
They also invite gang members to Bible study sessions at various locations in Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens and Burbank, Rodriguez said.
Bennett said: "We know it is difficult for them to quit but we tell them it can be done." He used to ride in his wheelchair from his home to school about half a mile away, but stopped after young gang members from another neighborhood questioned him several times. "They told me if I wasn't a Christian it would be a different story," Bennett said.
He said his friend Teran now drives him to adult school for a computer class. "In order to become independent I need training. So, I will go on with my education," said Bennett, who now lives on Social Security assistance.
Bennett said he hopes eventually to find a job in the computer field.