East San Jose native Danny Sanchez grew up surrounded by violence, absent parents and broken dreams. He spent his adolescence and young adult years in and out of prison, tangling up in gang activities and staring down a path of self-destruction.
At age 29, on the verge of death in his mom’s bathroom after taking a large dose of baking soda to beat a drug test, Sanchez decided to turn his life around through his faith. He straightened up and became a pastor, working to start his own ministry.
“That was the hardest time of my life, and I remember there was nobody there for me,” Sanchez said, adding that his story is not uncommon in East San Jose. “That’s what draws me to this work, because (childhood) is such an important time in life.”
After becoming a pastor, he founded the City Peace Project, a faith-based youth empowerment organization. Sanchez, 48, now spends most of his days on school campuses and juvenile halls connecting with students through food, good stories and community events.
“I want to create a culture of peace and unity,” Sanchez told San José Spotlight. “I want students to feel special and valuable. I want them to feel like they’re loved and like they matter.”
With a focus on mentoring and conflict resolution practices, the City Peace Project has partnered with more than 15 campuses across three school districts in East and South San Jose to inspire and uplift thousands of students.
At Silver Creek High School, where Sanchez started visiting once a week two months ago, students and parents already knew him by name.
“I knew he was going to bring magic to our campus, but I didn’t realize the extent of the magic and how far and deep it would reach,” Principal Kelly Daugherty said. “We have other people on campus, but I don’t get the same results.”
A chaplain for troubled youth
In the early 2010s, with his lived-experience and relationship with the East San Jose community, Sanchez volunteered to serve as lead chaplain for San Jose’s gang prevention task force and crisis response program. In this role, he helped families and children deal with the aftermath of gang violence.
“It was heartbreaking to see these kids grieving,” Sanchez said. “I’m helping these families, but it’s already too late. They already lost their loved ones.”
That’s when Sanchez started his school outreach programs. In 2012, he stepped back from pastorship and founded the City Peace Project with his wife, Abigaíl. Sanchez said the project is rooted in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
His work was honored by former President Barack Obama in 2012, as the administration named Sanchez a White House Champion of Change in youth violence prevention.
In 2021, Sanchez and his wife published a biography detailing his life of trauma and hardship. Sanchez said he often keeps copies of the book to hand out to students.
The City Peace Project helps students better connect with their schools and others in the community. It also serves as a bridge to build trust with law enforcement.
“For several years, Pastor Danny Sanchez and I have worked together with youth in our community in order to develop trust and confidence,” San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata told San José Spotlight. “One of the ways we developed positive relationships was through providing a police department tour and discussing our backgrounds. Through these discussions, we learned that we all have the same goal—creating a safe and healthy community for everyone.”
Dubbed as “the peacemakers,” Sanchez and his team are often greeted by students with excitement—and a peace sign.
“He’s friendly, just a really good person,” Donavan Johnson, a junior at Silver Creek High School, told San José Spotlight. “He helped people when they were hungry. He cares about them.”
The school outreach program, which started in 2014, has garnered tremendous enthusiasm from school officials and students, Sanchez said. He said the need has become ever greater due to the pandemic.
“We love having you here,” Alexia Dominguez, another junior at Silver Creek, told Sanchez. “We have better days when you’re here. We always walk around campus to look for you.”
Filling in the gaps
When the pandemic hit, many students and their families didn’t have anywhere to turn for help, Sanchez said. The City Peace Project sprung into actions to fill those gaps.
The group hosted informational programs in Spanish to help families and students log into online classes. They also prepared care packages and handed out gift cards or cash to help many get through those uncertain times at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I have a direct relationship with the community, so I know which families were directly in need,” Sanchez said.
Using donations from local churches and private philanthropies, his organization distributed more than $160,000 in rental assistance, Sanchez estimates.
When he isn’t on a school campus, Sanchez finds himself hanging out at Plata Arroyo Park, which he helped rehabilitate. Once known for its graffiti and grittiness, the park is now a gathering space for many City Peace Project events.
For Sanchez, watching students find their passion and succeed in their journeys is the highest reward he could ask for.
“When I see them transforming and changing, that’s the moment that brings me the most joy,” he said. “To see them graduate or be empowered, that feels good.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.