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There I was, working in the food pantry of St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Catholic Church. At my side, preparing boxes for the needy was an 18-year-old one day and a 19-year-year old on the next. Both teens are part of the Sweet Potato Project. We were making amends for a transgression; paying a penance, trying to regain trust.
It was, after all, part of our deal.
It all started on the last day of our summer session. Excitement was in the air. It was payday and, in just two days, the youth would host an end-of-session event that would feature performances, testimonials and the sweet potato recipes they had discovered this year. The good times came to a crashing halt when I learned that three of my boys who had been asked to help out in the food pantry were accused of stealing a volunteer’s cell phone.
I was livid.
The church had allowed us to conduct classes this summer at its affiliate school, St. Louis Catholic Academy. The supportive staff had become loving mentors and had nothing but compliments about our youth-until that fateful day.
“How dare you jeopardize this program,” I yelled at the three boys. “After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?”
The rock-headed teens formed an alliance. No one would indict the other or admit they had stolen the phone or return it -not at first anyway.
The other kids were paid and dismissed. The three teens had to stay behind to face the wrath of myself, Herman Noah, board member with the North Area Community Development Corporation and Tallis Piaget, a local author and dedicated volunteer this summer. Those boys weren't leaving that room until the phone was returned.
Eventually, after a good dressing down, one of the boys fessed up. The phone was retrieved and returned to the elderly volunteer.
“How dare you jeopardize this program. After all we've learned about dignity, responsibility and self respect, how dare you damage the reputation of this program and your fellow students?”
“Why did you steal the phone,” I asked the culprit who will remain anonymous. “Because it was red,” he stupidly answered. This kid was a member of the “Bloods.” He’d been in the gang since elementary school. In some twisted way, he’s still captivated by the gang’s color.
The boys were sent home without pay. I told them that I needed to talk with Mr. Noah and Tallis about their punishment. I also needed to reflect on the advice some my students who started with the program last year had given me. Barry and Myke in particular had accused me of being too lax with some of the more rowdy students this year. I should “fire them,” they repeatedly insisted.
Their point was well taken but I challenged them: “Listen guys, we have a group of students this year from some of the poorest, most crime-filled neighborhoods in the city. They’re used to being suspended, shut out, kicked out or fired from something. I want this program to be different. I want us to find a way to turn the worse kids around and I need your help doing it.”
It’s a huge mandate for young people but the Sweet Potato Project is unlike traditional public or charter schools. We want the knuckleheads and the hard-to-reach. We’re dedicated to creating a generation of urban entrepreneurs. And, if we are serious about creating jobs and businesses in the North St. Louis, we’re going to have to find ways to empower the dismissed and discarded. Some are beyond rescue but we have to create avenues of redemption for those willing to step up to the challenge.
After reflections and discussions, I contacted the three boys:
“Since you all took part in this theft, you all must pay restitution,” I said. I offered them a deal. If they went back to the food pantry, humbled themselves and faced their accusers and worked two days for free; I’d give them their last paycheck and allow them back into the program.
Two of the boys showed up on different days. When I accompanied the first to the pantry, a senior volunteer said she didn't trust him and didn't want him there. It was understandable. However, the elderly volunteer who actually had her phone stolen disagreed with that decision. She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work. “He’s a good kid and a hard worker,” she assured me at the end of the day. “I just hope you've learned something today,” she told my student.
She allowed the boy to work under her supervision. I marveled at her gently but stern grandmotherly advice as she put the boy to work.
She wasn't there when I returned with the other student-the one who actually stole the phone but he told me she had called him. She had forgiven him for his deed and gave him the same advice she’d given his partner. As we walked home after working that day, I continued the lecture. “You have leadership ability young man. After all, you convinced a group of gullible young men to cover for your crime. Unfortunately, you have a gift that you’re using for evil,” I said.
“If you let me, I’ll show how to turn your weaknesses into your strengths.”
He said he’d try. Parting, I could only hope he and his wayward cohorts will learn something from the incident. There’s a way to reclaim dignity and the trust of others if you man-up after you mess up.
He is but one of the kids I’ve written about that give me great concern. They’re not in school, have no jobs and they are prone to dangerous distractions. I’m frustrated that we still haven’t raised enough money to resume classes and get them working a couple days a week maintaining the sweet potato lots. It’s not a lot of money but at least I can give them something while keeping my eyes on them and, hopefully, inspiring them. We reached out to these kids and welcomed the chaos that comes with their environments.
We’ve sparked their imaginations. I’ve told them that they will be the urban pioneers who will show the city that we can indeed plant produce and create products from North St. Louis.
A promise is a promise. I’m not giving up on them. I can’t.
After all, we made a deal.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills. For more information visit: sweetpotatoprojectstl.org