We all lose our way now and again. Teens who were model children could become rebellious as soon as they hit high school. Young adults who were honor roll students all through high school may embrace freedom and make poor choices in college. The important thing is that we accept the consequences of our actions and apply the experiences moving forward. Julio Romero, 31, of Forest Park, admittedly lost his way in high school and is now devoted to making sure others steer clear of that path.
Romero grew up in the Lakeview area. It was a nice neighborhood, but it was surrounded by gangs and drug activity. Romero’s older brother was involved in the gangs, but made sure the younger children weren’t. Despite this, there was one particular incident when Romero was a high school freshman that set him on a path to self-destruction.
While walking to Burger King one evening, Romero was stopped by the police and questioned about a crime that occurred in the area. Even though he wasn’t involved, he was beaten and detained. “At that moment, I stopped caring,” Romero said. “I figured if I was going to be accused of doing the crime, I might as well do it.” He started selling marijuana and cocaine and kept his activities secret from his family.
In his junior year, Romero’s brother was arrested and sent to prison for three years, accelerating Romero’s spiral into gang activity. “It was so hard to see him go to prison,” Romero said. “My brother was almost a father figure to me. I looked up to him and then he was just gone.” With the family’s alpha-male away for a few years, Romero felt the need to step up and be the man of the family. He started selling drugs to make money.
His trouble culminated his senior year with a fight with a gang member who attacked a family friend. “I was called upon to handle it, so I did. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do without checking your conscience.” Romero and another individual confronted the person and pistol whipped him so badly that when he was caught, Romero was charged with possession of a firearm with attempt to kill.
Romero sat in jail for three days waiting to be released. “I heard these voices of my parents and my youth pastors in my head saying, ‘Why are you acting this way? This isn’t who you are.’” He knew he had to change his life because the consequences were already piling up – he couldn’t graduate with his class and he had a hard time finding employment due to the felony on his record. A father at 19, Romero was tempted to go back to his old ways to support his family, but he turned to The Salvation Army instead, and was hired as a Red Kettle Coordinator.
In 2009, when Romero applied for an IT position at The Salvation Army Metropolitan Divisional Headquarters, he laid his past on the table. “I just told them everything that happened and my [future] boss went to bat for me,” Romero said. He was hired and has been in the department ever since. “It’s like coming home again. I want to be here.”
Today, Romero willingly shares his past with whomever asks. “I want to share my story and my blessings with others – especially convicted felons,” he said. “It’s hard to tell someone who’s had doors closed in their face to have faith, but I’m an example of good things happening.” Romero has also worked closely with teens at the LaVillita Corps Community Center, making sure they avoid the temptations and pitfalls he encountered. In fact, he has been responsible for several students going to college and embracing opportunities to improve their futures.