Angalia Bianca grabbed the young man by the jacket and affectionately shoved him against the window of a currency exchange.
“What were you fighting about?” she demanded. “Tell me.”
She fussed over his bandaged hand as he told his side of the tussle at a nearby alternative school.
Ignore it, she urged. “This can turn into something else,” she said. “What if someone got a gun?”
It was nighttime on this rough strip of Howard Street, and Bianca was fervently attending to her job as an outreach specialist for the anti-violence group CeaseFire, trying to pull local youths away from gangs, drugs and crime.
She’s familiar with all three, telling her story in numbers: 36 years as a heroin user, more than 120 arrests, 26 felony convictions, seven prison terms.
After growing up in Oak Park in an extended Italian family, she became its tragedy. She stole, lived in abandoned buildings and lost custody of her five children.
Her younger sister, Christine Byrne, considered her lost. “I just thought there was no hope for her,” she said.
Her uncle Joseph Bianco thought she was doomed. “I went to bed every night crying and praying,” he said. “When the phone would ring in the middle of the night, it just threw me for a loop. I always expected someone to say, ‘She’s dead.'”
Only her aunt Louise Holmes, the lone family member to write to her in prison, thought she was too smart to stay lost.
In letters, “I’d say to her, ‘You’re getting older. What are you going to do with your life?'” said Holmes, 69, who lives in Northlake.
At 53, Bianca has finally answered.
Bianca on Howard Street is in her element. Wearing a bright orange jacket emblazoned with “CeaseFire/Rogers Park,” she calls out greetings, dispenses hugs (“I’m Italian; we’re touchy people”) and talks, fast and at length.
Since January, she has been working full time for CeaseFire as an outreach worker, a role different from the one featured in the recent documentary “The Interrupters” — in that she isn’t directly intervening in violent situations.
CeaseFire makes a point of hiring people with troubled histories, said J.W. Hughes, program manager for CeaseFire/Rogers Park, and carefully vets them to make sure they are law-abiding and clean. Bianca has been both.
“Bianca has a remarkable rapport with young people,” Hughes said.”She can get into some spaces where guys normally wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The young people she works with praise her. “Everyone knows she’s a person they can talk to,” said Christopher Smothers, 25.
Community groups value her. She is a volunteer with A Safe Haven, the halfway house she credits with showing her how to build a new life, and several other neighborhood groups.
Politicians have gotten to know her. She has made so many lobbying trips to Springfield that at a recent community event, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy walked past and said, “Hi, Bianca.”