My name is Melody Rossi, and I’m the Founder of Cloud & Fire.

When I moved from the Inland Empire to Los Angeles in 1993—only a year after the Rodney King riots—I had never personally encountered a gang member, nor did I understand the impact of poverty or gangs on youth. But after accepting a teaching job at a middle school in Mexican Mafia territory, my perspective radically changed. My students taught me about gangs. When they witnessed murders, lost loved ones to bullet wounds, gloated after participating in brutal crimes, or displayed the hollow-eyed look of living in constant fear, they became my teachers. These gut-wrenching lessons were my call to action.

Gangs initially lure youth with money, drugs, power, and excitement. But the real glue is the sense of honor and family gangs offer. The most vulnerable youth are always those without strong bonds to healthy adults elsewhere in their lives. These youth are easy targets for gangs, and usually find out far too late the serious consequences of their gang affiliation. As a teacher who wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids surrounded by gangs, I thought back to my own excruciating teen years. I wasn’t in a gang, but I was certainly desperate for affirmation and validation from the adults who mattered to me. Thankfully, an aunt, a youth pastor, and my best friend’s mother were the ones who understood, and they became the life-boats to rescue me from the shipwreck of my life. Because of their faith in action, they reached out to me and helped me survive and become who I am today.

I founded Cloud & Fire to give kids what others gave to me—help through the tough years. What we do is simple, but profound. We show up. We listen. We care. We look right into kids’ hearts and accept them as they are, with all the messiness of their lives.  We keep showing up, even when there are mistakes, setbacks, and failures. We create a safe place where wounds can be healed, and new horizons can appear. And all along the way, we share the gospel. We love because Christ first loved us. These are our weapons in the fight against gangs—and all the other things that destroy young lives.

My life before Cloud & Fire has had many twists and turns. I’ve been a professional opera singer, an author, a classroom teacher, and a university professor. These aren’t exactly the perfect resume builders for founding a nonprofit to keep kids out of gangs. But they are evidence that God doesn’t call the equipped—He equips the called. It has been my greatest life privilege to help youth, to build a team of godly men and women who have demonstrated their love and faith through actions, and to work for better circumstances and outcomes for our community’s most vulnerable youth.

I hope my story will inspire you to consider this life lesson:  “If you don’t like it, change it. Find a need, and fill it.”

Email Melody Rossi, melody@cloudandfire.org