"Baby, if you close your eyes, you're not going to open them." That's what a paramedic told Damion Cooper after being shot right above his heart while standing on his mother's front porch in Baltimore. Cooper was a fighter, literally. He was a wrestler at Coppin State University when he was shot by a young man being initiated into a gang. The fighter inside of him made sure he swallowed the blood that was coming from his internal injuries so that his mother wouldn't see it. The fighter inside of him made sure he counted the street lights so he would be able to open his eyes once again. Now, years later, that same fighting spirit has led him to help young boys in Baltimore fight their way through anger to a more positive place. 

After being shot, Cooper dropped out of college and spent years being bitter about what happened to him. "For four years, two months and 18 days I became a very angry and bitter man," he told WBAL radio during an interview. He wrestled with understanding why him.Then one day after attending a church service, Cooper realized  he had to let the anger and bitterness go. 

He became a mentor inside the Baltimore jail complex. During this time, he taught young men about forgiveness, not knowing that his greatest test of forgiveness would soon follow. Cooper recognized the face of his shooter in one of his mentees. Although the young man had not been caught and charged with shooting Cooper, he was in custody for other crimes committed. In that moment, Cooper could have done several things including walk away from the man who almost killed him. But instead, Cooper chose to show two things to this young man — forgiveness and his wound. "He broke down in tears. I told this man to his face that I forgive him. I forgave a man who put a hole in my chest, who would have taken me away from my future wife and my future kids."  That act of forgiveness is what prompted Project Pneuma.

Project Pneuma (pneuma being the greek word for breath) has worked to help middle schoolers in Baltimore work through their anger and practice forgiveness and positivity. The students Cooper mentors, whom he refuses to refer to as "at risk" or "underprivileged," are exposed to activities they might have never been exposed to such as camping, hiking, yoga and martial arts. It's not all physical, though. They're also tasked with reading four hours a week and exploring poetry. One poem, in particular, requires the young men to recite: "I choose self-esteem, not self-pity," Cooper has them to say. "I choose to do things that others won't, so I can continue to do things that others can't."

With the help of Cooper and his all-male volunteer staff, for the last three years they have been able to keep their participants from suspension and their grades have gone up.

Cooper has come a long way from the tragic day that almost took away his purpose in life. " If you can see a young black boy smile — if you can help save a life — you can't beat that."

Cooper is right, you can't beat that. His contribution to creating more #blackboyjoy is remarkable and is further proof that we don't have to be who people say we are. 

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