Education & Family

Cameo: Damion Cooper

The founder of Project Pneuma teaches anger management and forgiveness to young men.

In 1992, you had a life-changing experience that ultimately led to the creation of Project Pneuma, a program that teaches middle school boys how to work through anger and into positivity. How did that come to be?
I was at Coppin State University on a wrestling scholarship, and I went home to East Baltimore one night to have dinner with my family. Near my house, I felt someone behind me. I turned around and two guys were there. Words were exchanged, and I remember the shorter guy pulling the trigger. Even now, I can still vividly see the sparks and the fire that came out of the gun. They turned and ran, and then my stepdad came out of the house and saw me walking toward the house with the hole in my [chest]. The worst part of it wasn’t the gunshot, even though it hurt tremendously once the adrenaline stopped pumping. It was watching my mother rock back and forth on the bed.

Where were you shot?
I was shot an inch above my heart, and since I was shot at point-blank range, the bullet ricocheted and cracked my sternum, broke three ribs, punctured my lung, and lodged under the nerves of my right arm. I had never felt like less of a man and I just got angrier by the day. I lost my faith, I lost my scholarship, and I lost 20 pounds in four days from the loss of muscle mass. I felt like everything had been taken away from me because of a bullet, and I didn’t know why.

How did you recover?
That took four years, two months, and 18 days. During that time, I became the person that nobody recognized. I was argumentative, the guy who always wanted to fight, always ticked off at the world. Then, on December 31, 1996, I decided I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I was planning to kill myself. Back then, we weren’t told about seeking help or treatment. In my mind, I was doing the best thing possible for myself.

What stopped you?
My friends rang my doorbell that night and begged me to go to church with them. I drove separately to the church because I was planning to sneak out the back as soon as they closed their eyes to pray. They took me to New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which is about two blocks away from where I was shot. Reverend Michael Coles did the sermon that night, and he recited 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.” I’ve never been an emotional person, but I remember breaking down and running up to the front of the church. I’m ruining pastor Robert Haynes’ robe with tears and he told me, “I don’t know what you’re going through, but you have to let it go.” That was the moment that, even though I still didn’t know who shot me or why he did it, I decided I was going to forgive him.

What happened next?
I went back to college and got my degree. Then I went to seminary and got a master’s degree in theology. During that time, I met Chaplain Wallace who, at the time, oversaw all of the prisons in Baltimore, and I started volunteering in the prison system, working with a group of guys to help prepare for life outside of prison. Unbeknownst to me, I had been mentoring the guy who shot me.

How did you discover this?
Our job was to build trust with these men, because they didn’t trust anyone in the system, and I took interest in one guy who kept saying things about where he lived and how he came up because his life mirrored my life leading up to the shooting. Chaplain Wallace allowed me to talk with him, but I could only ask open-ended questions. He had come to know me and trust me, and I asked him if he had committed any crimes that he wasn’t convicted of. I listened to him tell me three things that he had done, and on the fourth one, I sat there with my mouth open and listened to his vivid retelling of how he shot me.

How did you react?
I told him that he shot me. He turned beet red, and everyone in the room was dumbfounded. I remember standing up and unbuttoning my white dress shirt and tie to show him the hole in my chest that is still there. I got up and walked around to his side of the table and, it was hardest thing I ever did in my life, but I told him I forgave him. I forgave the man who would’ve taken me away from my children, my wife, everything.

What did you do with this information?
I couldn’t destroy his life over this. . . . He aligned himself with people who weren’t good for him and they steered him wrong. What he did to me was a stupid and horrible thing, but he was a kid who got mixed up with the wrong things. I made it my business, and so did everyone in the room, to never tell anyone who this guy was. He’s now out of prison, he has an associate degree from Baltimore Community College, he has two kids, and he’s active in his men’s ministry. We talk every Saturday.

How did you translate this experience into Project Pneuma?
I wanted to help young people who are going through the same kinds of things that the guy who shot me was going through.

How did you get the program up and running?
With the grant money [a $10,000 BMe Leader Award], I took the idea to Cross Country Elementary School and I asked them for a cohort of young men who weren’t doing well in school—fighting, cursing, cutting class—and a cohort of young men doing exceptionally well to help break the barriers between the two groups. We started with 25 boys in 2014, and, as of today, we have 101 boys and a waitlist of more than 300 kids.

What kinds of activities do they participate in through the program?
We use martial arts and wrestling because they’re both team sports, but when it’s time to compete, you have to learn to stand on your own feet. We also do yoga and mindfulness training, where they learn to center themselves. We also have the Pneuma STEM Academy. They’re reading books, they’re learning different languages; we want them to do everything that an ordinary kid from the city isn’t doing. We want to expose them to what life is so they’re not just trying to survive—they’re flourishing in life.

Project Pneuma also has a long-standing partnership with the Baltimore City Police Department. How do the boys interact with the BPD?
Twice a week, the boys and the police academy recruits meet to work on academics and then on the physical activity of the day. What we weren’t ready for was how the kids would help the police recruits. A lot of them come in with issues, too. You might see a young man break down because he’s having issues with his father, for example, and then see an officer trainee in tears because he had the same issues. Now both sides see each other as humans and not as adversaries. When they come into the academy, it’s not a place of fear or concern. It’s a place where everybody knows they’re going to be safe and loved and respected.

How has Project Pneuma impacted your life?
It’s almost as if the bullet saved my life. I was angry, bitter, and lost. But until I let that go, I couldn’t heal. I think I wanted the world to show forgiveness and compassion to me. When I see these young men or those police academy recruits letting those things go, that’s the reward. When you can help change the trajectory of someone’s life in a positive way, that’s the reward. Hopefully these kinds of programs will stop our city from needing organizations that deal with people once they’ve already made a mistake and are in the justice system. If we can help the young boys now, we won’t need those institutions later.