On his first week on the job, Sang Dao is more than ready.
Wearing neatly pressed pants paired with a business professional shirt, glasses and a smile -- the 25-year-old is the picture of confidence as a program aide for the Department of Community Justice Juvenile Services Division.
Dao is one of the newest recruits for the Juvenile Services Division and is more than deserving of the job, but it's not his appearance that sets him apart to his employer and coworkers. It’s his humble character and drive that pushed him to graduate magna cum laude with a bachelors in criminology and criminal justice from Portland State University in June, 2014.
They are accomplishments Dao achieved while serving more than seven years at the Oregon Youth Authority MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.
“In 2007, I was 17,” said Dao. “And over the span of two months I was involved in three shootings that ultimately led to my incarceration. One was road rage where I provoked another driver. Two adult males, an adult female and a baby were the in the car when things escalated and I opened fire on the vehicle.”
Rewind more than a decade earlier and the poised young man here today would be unrecognizable. Back then, Dao’s life was consumed by drugs, alcohol and earning “battle scars” while in his gang.
His official launch into gang life happened at age 13, but Dao estimates the roots took hold at an even earlier age.
“I was around it my whole life. My dad, he was a gang member. Although he wasn’t involved in my life I kind of idolized him. I felt within my comfort zone when I was around gang members.”
As first generation Vietnamese American, Dao says his grandparents risked their lives to escape war-torn Vietnam with their 10 children. The family made it to Malaysia where they were sponsored by a church organization before they moved to America. Once in the United States though, Dao says his uncles became involved in gangs.
“I grew up in east Oakland and we lived in an area that was impoverished and a lot of gang activity.”
At age eight, Dao’s single mother moved the family from Oakland to Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood for a better life, but Dao’s native Vietnamese tongue became an unbearable communications barrier.
“In California, communication at school was not an issue for me, because everyone -- from the teachers to my classmates -- was Vietnamese and spoke my native language, making it easy to develop friendships. “
“In Oregon, it took me no time to realize that I was the only Asian kid in the class. It was a big culture shock. I didn’t connect with kids and I was ashamed of it. I fell way behind and lost any interest I had left in school. And if my classmates weren’t hard on me enough, my family was not pleased with my schooling."
By the time Dao reached age 13, he stopped going to school and began to model himself after what he thought he was destined to be -- a thug. He befriended gang members that he shared similar cultural backgrounds. He lied, stole, cheated and harmed people with no feelings of remorse. He started to sell and use drugs and embrace every aspect of criminal life.
After three shootings at age 17, Dao began to realize the repercussions of his actions when he was arrested. He learned he had shot at a car with a family and baby inside. He also learned he had hit and injured a man during a gang meet-up.
He was charged as an adult with Measure 11 crimes and sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison.
To say prison was an eye-opening experience is an understatement.
For Dao, the harsh reality set-in and so did a wide array of emotions from remorse for his crimes to shame and hopelessness.
“I didn’t think of the full enormity of it.”
Dao would spend one year in detention/jail before he was transferred to Oregon Youth Authority’s (OYA) MacLaren correctional facility. At age 25, he would be transferred to the Oregon Department of Corrections to serve the remainder of his sentence.
But with limited time before being sent to adult prison a driving motivation to improve set in as he realized his family’s sacrifices.
“My grandparents passed away while I was incarcerated and we were a really close-knit family. My grandparents kept us together. They escaped from Vietnam, from the war with 10 kids, traveling at sea and risking death. They risked all of that just for the belief that coming to America would provide a better life.”
“So here I am. I’m born -- first generation Vietnamese American -- and I managed to mess it up. So me being the oldest boy in my generation I thought -- how am I setting the tone? I started realizing I’m gonna honor their life.”
Dao began to work -- feverishly -- towards rehabilitation and education. He would participate in every program possible at OYA.
His progression would be described as a “remarkable personal transformation” by OYA director Fariborz Pakseresht.
He took part in multiple treatment groups -- some mandatory, others on his own accord. He developed authentic and supportive relationships not only with OYA staff and youth but with mentors outside the facility like Multnomah County Juvenile Services Division (JSD) director Christina McMahan, Multnomah County Presiding Court Judge Nan Waller and Youth Rights and Justice attorney Angelo Sherbo.
He took part in vocational programs and job opportunities and an OYA research internship focused on youth reformation.
He also gave back by participating in peer mentoring groups including serving as vice chair of the MacLaren Youth Advisory Committee among other work groups.
Sang and his mother would also serve an invaluable role, speaking to families and young people facing OYA and Department of Corrections commitment as part of the Multnomah County Juvenile Services Division/OYA Measure 11 Transition Program.
“There was no shred of ‘poor me’ or 'I have been done wrong by the system’ in telling his story,” explained Multnomah County Junvenile Services director Christina McMahan. “I witnessed Sang respond to each person with compassion, honesty and with an overarching sense of hope. I witnessed a shift in the demeanor of family members when Sang shared his experiences … It was as if they were responding to the seeds of hope Sang planted for each of them.”
With just three high school credits to his name, Sang set goals to earn his high school diploma and if possible a bachelor’s degree. After two and a half years of diligent work before and after school and taking on extra credit opportunities, he was a high school graduate and enrolled in Lane Community College.
“My mom would say all 'I wanted for you was to earn a high school diploma' but it was my desire to push further.”
His efforts were noticed by Salem business owner and child and family activist Dick Whitnell, who gladly paid more than $11,000 of his own money to pay for Dao’s future education.
He would graduate magna cum laude from Portland State University with a degree in criminology and criminal justice.
Dao’s remarkable transformation was detailed in a 28-page clemency application with letters of support from Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, JSD director Christina McMahan, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, former Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge and current Federal Judge Michael McShane.
He has also received support from his victims.
“I owe a lot it to them. That’s another reason why I give it my all. Just one split second decision can turn your life upside down and it affects other people too.”
On his last day in office, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s last item of business was to grant clemency for the 25-year-old. The only person out of more than 14,000 whose sentence was commuted.
Dao was granted clemency four months after he was transferred to adult corrections.
“I can tell you from personal experience from going to adult corrections, I would have never had a chance. This is a good place (OYA) to learn. I only spent four months in adult corrections. It was an eye opening experience.”
Less than two months after being released from prison, Sang Dao, his mother Mai Trinh and his supervisor Christina McMahan met with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Dao and his mother wanted to personally thank Kafoury for her letter of support and now job allowing him to pursue his passion of helping youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
As a program aide, Dao will work on range of assignments from special projects involving system change, youth and gang violence, assessment of our county’s juvenile justice practices, as well as serving as a mentor for youth who are currently living in the Measure 11 unit of the juvenile detention center.
According to County Juvenile Services Measure 11 manager Izzy Lefebvre, Dao’s experience and mentoring has often times broken through impenetrable barriers with youth, who are on the very same path as Dao was on over a decade ago.
“Youth will listen to you and see you as a role model,” said Chair Kafoury while meeting with Dao and his mother.
Dao will now have a role implementing a juvenile justice early intervention pilot, a program Chair Kafoury has dedicated funding to in her 2015-2016 budget.
“My heart is set on juvenile justice. For those who don’t have a voice can’t speak. I want to be that voice," said Dao. “You need a support network. It takes a village to support.”
“Its a transformation, metamorphosis,” said McMahan. “Sang has the ability to reflect on where he has been, commit to changing his direction and he possesses caring and compassion for others, as exhibited by the peer mentoring, work with families and youth in the Measure 11 unit."
Dao will work side-by-side with juvenile justice experts and mentors who were there for him during his darkest hours. He counts among them, his mother, who has been there through thick and thin.
“There are little nuggets she says that resonate with me everyday," Dao says. “It’s that love from her and the family that really carried me through. She was my rock and my backbone in all of this. She’s my mother and my best friend. She would say this is what you need to do. Don’t pity yourself.”