BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - Late on the night of Oct. 13, 1992, 20-year-old Damion Cooper was shot in a dark alley in Baltimore, Maryland. The bullet lodged near his heart and he nearly died. The man who shot him went to prison, and Cooper became what he recalls as “a very angry and bitter young man.”
“All the values I learned went out of the window. My faith was gone. I blamed the society. I blamed God. I blamed everyone for being shot. I didn’t understand,” he said. Finally, after more than four years, he realized he had to move on. He went back to college, and got his master’s degree in theology.
While in seminary, he started doing volunteer work in a prison.
“Unknown to me,” he noted ironically, “for a year and half, I wound up mentoring the very young man who shot me. Once we found out that this was the young man, I forgave him.”
Cooper decided to share the lessons he learned during that process. He founded Project Pneuma in his hometown of Baltimore, to teach boys how to control their anger and inspire them to achieve their dreams. In Greek, “pneuma” means breath and spirit. And that’s the core philosophy of the program.
Exercise, breathe and calm down
Twice a week, all year-round, about two dozen boys gather at Baltimore Police Academy to participate in Project Pneuma. It combines exercise, yoga and leadership training.
They joined the program because they had difficulty focusing in school or controlling their impulses. Here, they exercise and meet with adults who care about them, like school principal Nikomar Mosley, who volunteers with the program.
“We allow our students to engage in different push-ups and sit-ups and things that will build them physically,” he said. “Sometimes, with the physical push that helps to keep their eyes focused.”
Cooper says other exercises focus on breathing.
“We want our young men to understand that oftentimes when they act out of impulse actions, they don’t think about it,” he said. “They just act. So, what we’re trying to do is get them to slow down. If you take a deep breath, it slows things down.” And that makes it easier for them to control their anger and learn to forgive.
Teaching forgiveness, learning leadership
Finding the strength to forgive is one of the lessons Project Pneuma kids learn.
“My best friends have gone to this program,” said Cooper’s 14-year-old son Nigel, who adds that joining the program is a transforming experience. “They used to always fight no matter what I say to them. But now, they calmed down to the point that you could push them and they could look at you and like shrug their shoulders.”
Pneuma is about more than controlling anger and learning forgiveness. The program also helps these kids grow into responsible young men.
“We want them to understand that we care about them, that we treasure them, that they mean something,” Cooper said. “Once they believe it, they can go and do better things in life. They can be role models to other kids in their community.”
The participants range in age from 9 to 14. Mosley explained that they count on the oldest students to help the younger ones.
“It gives the younger children an opportunity to look up to someone and develop a big brother within the program. So, it develops leadership among our children and it also keeps it diverse. So, the program is ever evolving as those children that are currently participating, they grow up, get older and become the mentors for the younger participants.”
Four years after he founded Pneuma, Cooper said, the results so far suggest that the program is working well.
“Since we started the Project Pneuma, none of the young men had been suspended at all — not one,” he said proudly. “Because the parents allow us to come to their schools and check on their sons. We check report cards, we check grades. We pop up and make sure they stay on this path.”
14-year-old Virtue Bama says he’s always excited about attending Pneuma sessions. “This program is very invigorating. This program is very fun for me to be around.”
Not only is it invigorating and fun, but kids have stayed with Project Pneuma because it offers something many of them are missing in their lives — encouragement, moral support and consistency.