How One Man’s Shooting Led to a New Program for Baltimore Boys


The bullet that ripped a hole in Damion Cooper’s chest left him bitter and angry. He spent more than four years raging against society. He questioned his faith in God.

The last thing he wanted to think about was forgiveness.

Fourteen years later, Cooper runs a well-regarded program that teaches young boys to do what he once could not.

Twice a week, dozens of middle schoolers head to a gymnasium inside Baltimore’s police academy to learn from Cooper. Most, he says, are there because they’ve had difficulty paying attention or controlling their impulses. Some have been suspended from school.

Cooper founded Project Pneuma — the Greek word for breath — three years ago. Through martial arts, yoga and meditation, he teaches the middle school boys how to work through anger and into positivity.

“Since we started this program, not one of these boys has been suspended,” says Cooper, 44. “All their grades have gone up.”

The parents and educators who send their boys to Cooper’s nonprofit say they notice a quick change in the boys’ mindset after only a few sessions.

Nikomar Mosley, the principal of Gwynns Falls Elementary School, encourages students to attend.

“Some of the students had challenging behaviors and their behavior changed,” Mosley says. “They’ve taken on leadership roles. Their grades improved because of the community accountability.”

How did Damion Cooper go from being consumed with anger to being a force against it?

It’s a story that begins on Oct. 13, 1992.

Cooper, then a wrestler at Coppin State University, was on a path to academic and athletic success. Hungry that afternoon for a home-cooked meal, he took a bus to his mom’s home in East Baltimore. He was wearing headphones, listening to Boyz II Men. He didn’t notice the two teens following him.

When he reached his family’s doorstep, he sensed their presence and turned around. One of the teens was holding a gun. He was being initiated into a gang.

“You gotta do it now,” the other teen said.

The bullet struck Cooper just above his heart. It ricocheted and cracked his sternum. It ricocheted and broke his ribs. It ricocheted and damaged the nerves in his right arm.

Cooper recalls feeling — and smelling — as if his body was on fire.

Cooper’s stepfather rushed down the stairs and grabbed him. The college student was bleeding internally, but he was more worried about distressing his mother.

“As the blood was coming up, I should have spit it out, but I didn’t want my mother to see it,” Cooper says. “So I kept swallowing it, and I was choking on my own blood.”

On the ambulance ride to the Francis Scott Key Medical Center — now Johns Hopkins Bayview — a paramedic leaned down to him.

“Baby,” she said, “if you close your eyes, you’re not going to open them.”

Cooper counted the passing street lights to stave off death.

Doctors saved Cooper’s life that night in 1992, but the shooting took his joy. The former altar boy’s faith in God was diminished. He dropped off the wrestling team and out of college.

“For four years, two months and 18 days, I became a very angry and bitter man,” Cooper said. “I became that typical guy who just felt rage and anger because I didn’t understand why I would get shot.”

Cooper could tell his life was off course. He decided to attend a service at East Baltimore’s New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, near his family’s home. He planned to slip out during the offering, but the sermon grabbed his attention.

The message was from the Book of Psalms: “For his anger endures but a moment; in his favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

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Source: Baltimore Sun | Luke Broadwater