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Rising above the violence to pursue a career in health care

Faces of the Future, a unique after-school program in Oakland and Hayward, Calif., exposes students from low-income communities to careers in health care. NBC's Nancy Snyderman reports.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Pediatrician Tomás Magaña has treated it all -- gunshot wounds, drug overdoses and domestic abuse injuries.

“I’ve seen too many kids die. I’ve lost 10 kids in my practice, five in the past year alone,” he said.

The doctor’s voice cracks when he talks about his patients. One teen committed suicide while others died in shootings. Some belonged to gangs but a few were killed in the crossfire.

“I’m trained to treat disease but our kids are dying from homicide, suicide, trauma -- the three leading causes of death for teens. All preventable yet all on the rise in certain communities,” he said.

Living in fear
Magaña works at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif. -- one of America's most violent cities and part of Alameda County, ranked first in the state and third in the nation for violent crime.

Children live in fear, said Magaña, and no one is immune. 

“Kids hear a popping sound and they run for cover,” he said.  

The Oakland Tribune recently reported that stray bullets kill about one person a month here. While murders and assaults nationwide are declining, according to FBI statistics, violent crime in Oakland in 2012 climbed 25 percent -- about four and a half times the national average.

Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County district attorney, has called crime in Oakland “a cancer” and the city newspaper “a police blotter.”

She attributes 70 percent of all shootings in the city to gangs.

This year, the city has also seen a surge in domestic violence that includes the death of four teenage girls as well as a disturbing rise in the number of minors forced into sex slavery.

“Some of the stories these kids tell us are horrendous,” said O’Malley. 

They’re stories Dr. Magaña hears every day.

“The boys talk about their fear of the future, how they expect to end up dead or in jail,” Magaña said. “Many of the girls talk about abuse in their lives.”

Statistically, these are the kids who never finish school. In some Oakland communities, the high school dropout rate runs as high as every six out of 10 kids. 

Dr. Tomas Magana expands on why he went into medicine and why he is helping prepare the next generation.

And many get in trouble once they leave school.

Something Magaña knows all about. A native of East Los Angeles, Magaña was raised by a teenage mom. 

“She did the best she could. We grew up together and we struggled a hell of a lot.” Magaña believes he too was headed for trouble until other adults, namely his grandparents, interceded and “reframed” his destiny.

Using that as a prescription for success, Magaña and a colleague started a program designed to inspire at-risk teens to stay in school. 

And it’s working.

Building self-esteem, and a passion for health care
Their program, FACES for the Future, helps teens explore careers in health care. The students get academic credit for volunteering in local hospitals where they shadow medical professionals doing their jobs. The kids rotate through specialties like surgery, anesthesia, pediatrics and neo-natal care. During the two-year program, the kids clock 600 hours of volunteer time at community hospitals like St. Rose in Hayward, Calif.

“This builds self-esteem and also looks great on a college application,” explained Magaña.

Felicity Harris, 25, now attends a master’s program in public health at San Francisco State. Her ultimate goal is to become a physician assistant.

“I didn’t have a very sturdy family life so I kind of raised myself. A lot of times in high school I felt alone. It would have been easy to have just given up,” said Harris.

FACES “grounded and motivated” her, she said. “Here I knew people were happy to see me, who wanted me to flourish and grow.”

‘Life is just so overwhelming’
In addition to the hospital experience, each student is assigned a mentor -- an adult to rely on when life gets tough.

For Angela Kath, 17, who is raising her daughter alone, that person is Brooke Briggance, the program director and a fiercely protective substitute mother many of these kids seem to need in their lives.

“Life is just so overwhelming. Sometimes I just need a shoulder to cry on,” admitted Angela, who balances high school, working two part-time jobs and caring for 4-year-old Kamiya. “Mrs. Brooke is the person I turn to so I can be strong for my daughter.”

Before FACES, Angela was on the verge of dropping out of school. Now she dreams of one day working with teenage mothers. 

“Mrs. Brooke tells me I’m smart,” she said. “She helps me stay focused, keep my mind on my goals.”

Since FACES started 13 years ago, about 500 kids have passed through both the two-year program and the summer program. Almost all have graduated high school. Many went on to college.

An impressive feat when you consider that initial acceptance is not based on grades. In fact, lots have poor academic track records.

What they possess is the motivation to change their lives.

“Even with so much trauma, poverty and hopelessness, many children still dream of a better life -- a life full of opportunities,” said Magaña.

Just like he did as a kid.