- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - President Barack Obama met privately Thursday with four former gang members and the head of a Los Angeles nonprofit that is helping them turn around their lives.

The brief meeting with Homeboy Industries founder Father Gregory Boyle and the four teenagers who all served time for their gang-related activities took place after Obama’s speech at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.

The teens stood in a semi-circle and the president approached each one, asked his name and age, and took a picture with him.

Obama then gave them a short pep talk, telling them how he had been raised by a single mother who was 18 when he was born, and how he used to get in trouble, Boyle said.

The teens who met with Obama were Jhonny Iglecias and Raymond Maldanado, both 18, and Herbert McKinley and Anthony Swift, both 19.

“I never thought I was ever going to meet the president in my life,” said Swift, who was serving time a year ago. He said meeting the president was exhilarating. “He was a cool guy - he was kind of funny, and just like us.”

McKinley was still aglow afterward because the president had complimented him on the scraggily beard he’s growing - the one Boyle and the other teens had tried to get him to shave before the meeting.

“The president says ‘I couldn’t grow a beard like that at 19. But I couldn’t even grow a beard like that today,’” Boyle said. The comment prompted McKinley to look to Boyle, vindicated.

The gathering was part of Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which aims to connect youth to mentors and support networks to gain skills to get a job or go to college.

As the president prepared to leave, he said, “‘Well, I’ve got to go back to work,’” Boyle recalled. “‘The work never stops. So no shortcuts.’”

Those last few words stuck with Swift.

“The way I live my life, I always try to go the easy way out,” Swift said. “But the way he became president wasn’t the easy way, so OK, to get what I want I know I’ve got to really buckle down.”

Also at the meeting were U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, the president’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Congresswoman Karen Bass and state Assemblyman Steven Bradford.

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Tami Abdollah can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/latams

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