Transformation Stories

Erika Vargas: The Small Word That Means Everything


Erika Vargas read Fr. Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, while she was incarcerated. Like many who encounter his humorous and heart-wrenching parables about unconditional love for hardened gang members, Erika found herself in tears.

“My roommate was like, ‘Are you getting soft on me?’ Then she read it and cried too.”

Erika’s family introduced her to a life of crime at a young age. At a time when most people are thinking about college or a career, she already had children to support and a criminal record. After she got out of prison, she came to Homeboy Industries and enrolled in the GED prep program. From there she joined the 18-month Job Training program, which she is now a year into.

Homeboy’s team of therapists, case managers, and peer mentors (called Navigators) form a secure base that allows trainees to grow and discover their true selves. One of the first people Erika connected with was her Navigator, Janet.

“Janet told me her story [of being incarcerated and then choosing a different life], and she said, ‘If I can do it, you can do it—you can do whatever you want,’” Erika recalls.

With that seed of confidence, Erika began her transformation. She works as an assistant to Homeboy’s Director of Personal Development, and she has been working with a cohort of fellow trainees to become a certified Wildland Firefighter with the National Forest Service. The process is grueling. Participants must complete 40 hours of classroom instruction and field work, hiking for hours at a time with a 45-pound backpack and all their tools.

“My self-esteem went from zero to 100,” she says. “I feel much stronger now. I’m more toned. And the structure has been really good for me.”

Erika took charge of making sure everyone in the cohort got all their paperwork in, completed the required physicals, and was outfitted with proper equipment. At first she refers to herself as the team’s secretary, but then she corrects herself: She is the crew manager.

“Once we hit that fire, our lives depend on each other,” she says. “I never had a trusting relationship before.”

This is the heart of Homeboy’s work: helping people who never had anyone they could rely on, least of all themselves, to feel unconditional love for the first time. Once they’ve experienced it, they inevitably want to pay it forward. Erika hopes to help future fire crews through the training process. Her long-term goal is to work with youth, so she can tell them the words she always longed to hear when she was a kid.

“I want to tell them that it’ll be okay even when nothing seems okay,” she says. “‘Love’ is such a small word, but it means everything.”


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Janet Contreras: Connecting the Dots

Damond Johnson: “We Were at Homeboy for the Same Reason”

Connie Cordero: The Point of Doing Well

Miguel Avila: “I Don’t Want to Let Myself Down”

Erika Vargas: The Small Word That Means Everything

Brazil Jackson: “laugh a little harder, live a little longer”

Marcus Avery: “It’s Family”

Orsy Jerez: Finding an Open Door

Valerie Copeland: “Homeboy is a place where it is ok to be myself”

Will Lopez: “I’ve had my second chance here—and my third, and my fourth”

James Horton: Compassion in Action

Victor Key: A Chance at Happiness

Gordy Abriel: Stepping Into a Brighter Future

Christy Stillwell: From Victim to Advocate

Javier Chavez: Mind, Body, and Spirit

Carlitos Asegura: Who are we? Homeboys! How long will we run? Forever!

Javier Medina: Made from Scratch

David Andrade: “Do it for yourself”

Brandy Harris: “Recognize who you are”

Ruth Butler: “Now I love my life”

Hoang Pham: “Homeboy is my home”

Rasheena Buchanan: “You can’t get this kind of love anywhere else”

Glenda Alvarenga: Hungry for Empowerment

Jermaine Smith: “There’s nothing else like this”

Pedro Mata: Working for a Better Life

Eugene Walker: An Advocate for Positive Living

George Nunez: Being the Father He Never Had

Mariana Enriquez: A Moment of Clarity

Amie Zuniga: How an Accidental Transformation Led to a Life of Purpose

Lami Glenn: “Their generosity is what drives me”

Evan Hess: Father’s Day, every day

Dorene Macias: parenting and paying it forward

Juan Marquez: Constructing Confidence

Gabriel Lopez - Two generations in gangs, two generations of change

Jose Arellano - Lost and found