To residents of the hardscrabble Washington, D.C., neighborhood in which Laura Kallus lived 18 years ago, they were criminals and lowlifes, Salvadorian gang members known to sell cocaine and heroin on street corners. But to an idealistic anthropology major working on her master’s degree at George Washington University, they were a curiosity.

So the North Carolina native boldly gained the trust of the group’s leader and began conducting history interviews for a college paper that would double as the first documented information on Latino gangs in D.C. Kallus, now executive director of Caridad Center in west Boynton Beach, shares stories with Boca Raton about those early attempts to empower the marginalized of society.

Back story: “I lived in a bad neighborhood [in the mid-1990s]; it was all I could afford. The residents were largely Salvadorian immigrants. My street birthed one of the largest Latino gangs in D.C. at the time. You had all sorts of social disorganization, crime and drugs.

“For one of my classes, I chose to interview my neighbors on what issues in the community were of primary concern to them. The gangs were one of the issues. I was going to write a paper on gangs, and I learned there was nothing published on these Latino gangs in D.C. There was one police gang investigator at the time, and he was in charge of the Asian gangs, which were prominent; there were no gang units to deal with the Hispanic or African-American gangs. Nobody wanted to admit there was a problem, and nobody wanted to do anything about it.

“So I conducted history interviews with gang members in my neighborhood. My idea was that if we published something and documented it, people couldn’t ignore it anymore. ... Eventually, this turned into a larger project and I received a grant from the university to continue it beyond my graduation—because gang members kept coming to be interviewed. I asked one of them why they were so willing to share their stories. He said, ‘Because nobody ever asked us before.’”

Why gang life: “The thread [that ran through the interviews] involved being left in the home country. The civil war in Salvador was very brutal and bloody, and it took a toll on the male population. Many children were raised by grandparents. Their mothers would leave for the United States; many found domestic work or restaurant work in D.C. After saving money for like 10 years, the mothers would pay to have the children come to the States.

“By the time they reunited, the mothers often had new families. So here were these teenagers moving in with siblings they had never met and mothers they hadn’t seen in a decade. They didn’t speak the language, other kids made fun of their clothes, and they were constantly picked on. They were the low rung on the totem poll, and that’s how they banded together as part of gangs.”

How Kallus connected with gang members: “There was a 12-year-old boy in the neighborhood who gave me the history. He showed me the graffiti and explained what it all meant; he really gave me my education on the neighborhood. Through him, I eventually connected with one of the gang leaders and told him about my project.

“I asked questions that I wouldn’t even ask my own friends. They would talk and talk and talk. I learned of sexual abuse, feelings of worthlessness, domestic violence issues; they shared so much intimate information. So now, when I passed them in the street, I knew all these details. I couldn’t pretend like everything ended because I was done with my project. I knew these people. ... Next thing I know, I’m helping them find jobs. They’re asking for my help with a cousin picked up by the police. I started doing case management because they didn’t have anyone to help navigate the system.

“Listening to the stories, you’d think how could they not be where they are now? We weren’t that different. We all have these needs—to be loved, to belong, to be safe, to fit in. All of it was so poignant; it’s what we all want out of our lives. ... It was a very humbling, defining experience. I couldn’t publish my paper and go on about my life. I was so transformed by these stories—and by the fact that nobody was doing anything to help improve their lives.”