(CNN) — Shanduke McPhatter grew up in the Brooklyn projects.
“Some nights, I had to eat a syrup sandwich. That was what dinner was. And that hunger will send you out to look for a different way, like going into the store to steal a cake or something to put food in my stomach,” McPhatter said.
He was raised by his mother and never knew his father.
“I believe that was part of a catalyst for me becoming angry and doing whatever I felt was necessary to survive,” he said.
Petty theft eventually turned into armed robbery. “No leadership in my life. No meaning. Nothing to live for.”
McPhatter was first arrested at 16. He joined a gang, the Bloods, while incarcerated on Rikers Island.
“Prison doesn’t change the mind, it changes the crime,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t going to rob anymore, I began to sell drugs.”
Between 1994 and 2008, McPhatter spent almost a decade of his life behind bars.
“I went through the rite of passage of incarceration, and I survived it. People gravitated toward my energy, my negativity, my false leadership,” he said. “I wasn’t at the point of turnaround.”
That changed when McPhatter witnessed a heartbreaking family reunion in prison. He was walking with another prisoner when they were greeted by the inmate’s newly convicted son.
“I looked at his father, and there are tears coming down his eyes.”
That moment terrified McPhatter. With twin boys at home, he didn’t want his sons to grow up like him.
“I said ‘that’s my message right there. … It’s time to create what has not been there for me.'”
After his release, he spent the next four years working in personal fitness to save money to start a nonprofit.
In 2012, he founded Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes, or G-MACC, in Brooklyn. The organization helps at-risk youth, ages 14 to 25, stay off the streets through services like violence intervention, therapeutic mental health counseling and job opportunities.
“So many of our communities have been ravaged with that gangsta mentality. We believe that violence is a learned behavior. We want to be the catalyst of positivity,” he said.
Now 39, McPhatter’s primary focus is minimizing gun violence in the community where he once turned to crime.
According to statistics from the New York Police Department, shootings have decreased by about 20% this year in the precinct where G-MACC operates.
“When we have credible messengers like Shanduke reach a population that is living in a traumatic state, he’s one of the best shepherds to guide them on a healthier course,” said Eric Cumberbatch, executive director of the New York City Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence.
“I think he’s a role model in showing how you can come from any walk of life and really create your path moving forward,” he added.
The organization has helped more than 300 boys and girls, McPhatter said. Among them is 18-year-old Oriana Vigilance.
“I was mad at the world for stuff that was going on in my life,” she said. “I had been in like 20 fights in two years.”
She received multiple school suspensions and had to transfer high schools.
“G-MACC was on my back. They led me to graduate. They led me to my first job,” she said.
Vigilance now works as a violence interrupter for the organization to help other youth mitigate conflict. She plans to attend community college in January so she can become a social worker.
“Shanduke changed me. He keeps you straight,” Vigilance said.
Even though McPhatter strives to end gun violence, he couldn’t prevent tragedy from striking his family in 2016. His brother was shot and killed at a rap concert.
But losing his brother has only strengthened his resolve.
“How can we stop the next shooting from happening? By having a relationship with the individuals who are more likely to shoot or be shot. It’s about giving them an opportunity or a way out.”
™ & © 2017 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.