Conny Caruso, 86, had left her job as an executive assistant in the entertainment industry. Her memoir, Foothold in the Mountain, had just been published. During a book signing, someone in the audience called out, "What's your next project?" Without thinking, she answered, "I'm going to pay it forward." Except she didn't know how. Soon after, she read a Los Angeles Times story about Father Gregory Boyle and his Homeboy Industries, which employs and educates former gang members. "I went down there," Caruso remembers. "My homies opened the door for me, and I said: 'Oh my God. Heaven isn't up there. It's right here.' I haven't left since."
Now, besides raising money, organizing events, and getting Hollywood bigwigs involved with Homeboy Industries, Caruso spends hours each week with reformed ex-convicts. "I love them," she says. "They're divine human beings." The felons call her mama, and that's who she is to them. She joins them for therapy, recovery meetings, and meditation. She encourages them, yells at them, hugs them. "My constant focus is engaging with the homeboys and homegirls," she says.
Caruso is tough in her own right: Born in Brooklyn to Sicilian immigrants, she suffered with an abusive father. "I grew up in fear and became like him to counter that fear," she says. "I've had struggle, agony. I've been in an insane asylum." Caruso says her own life has taught her not to judge. "You get these kids who've had the most horrendous lives—they were treated like worms in the woodwork," Caruso says. "If you meet them today, there's nothing but love and trust. People ask me, 'Aren't you afraid? These are dangerous people.' I say: 'Are you kidding? They're afraid of me.'"
Explore the complete list of visionaries making change after 80 here.