EAST CHICAGO — Without a proper parental figure in his life, Juan “J.R.” Ortiz turned to the streets of East Chicago for guidance.
But the mentorship Ortiz found soon landed him behind bars.
“I went searching for a family, but unfortunately, that ‘family’ turned out to be a gang,” the 38-year-old said. “It cost me a lot. I did a lot of time in a lot of different facilities. I had to be a man before I even hit puberty.”
When he left federal prison in 2011, Ortiz said he also decided to leave his former self behind, making a promise that he would no longer spend another portion of his life in a jail cell.
“I didn’t want to be a part of it no more,” Ortiz said. “I told myself, ‘If you get out of this, you’re done. No more gangs.’”
Around this time, Ray Castaneda was having a similar epiphany.
Like Ortiz, Castaneda joined an East Chicago gang at a young age, seeking protection from his schoolyard bullies.
“I was tired of getting jumped,” Castaneda said. “So, I went with them to their house. They introduced me to people and then they gave me my first gun while I was in the seventh grade.”
From there, he, too, would find himself behind bars off and on for several years. But eventually, Castaneda realized he couldn’t continue down this path. He already had missed too much of his children’s lives. So, he also made a commitment to change — for them and for himself.
The 41-year-old then started his own plumbing company, Superior Plumbing, which is how he met Ortiz, who applied for a job in 2014. With both growing up in East Chicago, the two had heard of one another, but never had a formal introduction until that point.
“We’ve just been together ever since,” Ortiz said. “We’ve truly been inseparable.”
“Like a brother bond,” Castaneda added.
However, it wasn’t just enough to avoid gang activity. The pair wanted to do more for the East Chicago community and stop local children from following in their footsteps.
Castaneda said the more than 28,000-member city had changed over the years, becoming more divided as senseless violence and crime increased.
Ortiz said the two began to think of ideas to help, but nothing really stuck until the death of David Anderson, an 11-year-old boy hit by a stray bullet May 5, 2018, in Nunez Park.
Anderson had been friends with Ortiz’s child, and his slaying elicited tears from the 38-year-old’s bright blue eyes. Something had to be done.
Ortiz and Castaneda decided to host a gathering at Wiley Park in which they gave away free food and raffled off various items, including T-shirts and toys. Handmade signs advocating for change and support were held in the hands of the attendees.
After that day, the Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago was born, with Ortiz and Castaneda at the helm.
Since that first event, the men began to rethink their method and transformed these park gatherings into fundraising opportunities to help gunshot victims — such as Antonio Adams, Ahlon Willians and Isaiah Flores — and their families with funeral costs by selling Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago T-shirts or other apparel and plates of food.
But soon, the events, which often generate more than $1,000, were directed at other East Chicago causes, in addition to continuing to put a stop to violence in their community.
Castaneda — whose wife, Christina, helps the men organize and execute these gatherings — said their biggest fundraiser was for longtime resident Tyrone Flores, a homeless man who died of a heart attack earlier this year. They raised more than $3,300 for his funeral.
The group also held an event for four East Chicago girls hoping to attend West Point Military Academy in West Point, New York. The money raised — about $2,000 from two gatherings — went directly toward helping with tuition costs.
The secret to their success? Jerk chicken, a recipe created by Castaneda’s brother, Pete.
Castaneda said the group, which often pays for supplies out of pocket, never asks for monetary donations — though, people are able to give money if they’d like and it will be given to the event’s beneficiary. Instead, they ask for side dishes, such as rice or potato salad, to accompany their celebrated poultry that is only sold during these gatherings. Others have donated pinatas, costumes and candy.
But it isn’t just the “off the chain” jerk chicken that draws in a crowd, the men said. It is the community’s willingness to support one another, especially during difficult times.
“When everybody tells us thank you, we say, ‘No, thank you, guys, because you guys are the ones that made it possible. You guys are the ones giving us the money. We’re just showing you guys that we can come together as East Chicago,’” Castaneda said. “Yeah, we put it together, but the E.C. is making it happen.”
“We’re the founders of Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago, but it’s a lot of people in this community who helps us,” Ortiz added. “It started from just an idea me and him had sitting in a work truck one day and it’s come pretty far in the last year and a half. ... After an event, I'm often like, 'Did we just do that?' Man, it's such a good feeling.”
The movement’s last initiative has been raising money for children passes at the city’s pool, so parents don’t have to pay the $10 fee, Castaneda said. They collected more than $1,300.
“We’re not doing this for fame and all that — we’re doing it for the kids,” Castaneda said.
Overcoming the past
It hasn’t always been easy for the men to overcome the ghosts of their former selves.
Ortiz said they are still haunted by their past affiliations, which have shaped people’s opinions of them despite what they are currently doing.
“We see people who comment stuff like, ‘How can you be Stop the Violence when you were the problem in the first place?’” Ortiz said. “We were the problem in the city, but we just brush it off and keep moving. We know what we are doing now. Our consciences are clear.”
However, the men find the occasional hate motivating, and any negative feedback is immediately overshadowed by the positivity stemming from the group’s events.
If they had the chance, Ortiz said they wouldn’t do anything differently because it helped to shape who they are today. The men hope to be an example for those who currently find themselves in a similar situation.
“If people see us and what we’ve came from and what we’ve done — with the drugs, gangs, prison and all that — to where we are now, anything is possible. You've got a future,” Castaneda said. “I initially did it for my kids, my grandkids and for me. Now, I’m doing it for my city.”
"We came from nothing," Ortiz added. "If we can do it, you can do it."
On Saturday, they are working with the East Central High School’s girls soccer team to raise money for equipment, Castaneda said. The team will host a yard sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 4224 Euclid Ave., while the group provides the food at $10 a plate.
Currently, Castaneda said they are already planning for next summer. The group hopes to continue hosting fundraisers for children passes at the East Chicago pool and partner with city’s parks and recreation department to offer free passes as an incentive to get good grades.
Castaneda said they also want to collaborate more with the city’s police department, devising strategies to keep children out of gangs and away from “nonsense.”
Plans for the two men to give motivational speeches at the East Chicago Public Library are in the works, as well. Ortiz said they hope to eventually give those same talks in the city’s schools.
“Back in the day, we were bringing kids into gangs,” Castaneda said. “So, with our ideas, we know we can get them out. We just need the right resources (and opportunities) to help us.”
“It’s like a snowball effect, and there’s no stopping it,” Ortiz added. “Even if we reach just one kid, it’s worth it — that’s good enough for us.”