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DaKCMan AP
07-29-2008, 09:33 AM
Reichert House reaches out to local at–risk youths

By JESSICA PONN (jponn@alligator.org), Alligator Staff Writer

He started in elementary school with fist fights and marijuana joints.

In sixth grade he discovered weapons. He was caught pointing a BB gun at a classmate and knocking a boy unconscious with a football helmet.

Expelled from school and on probation, Dana Grant Jr. looked forward to landing in prison — one step closer to becoming more like his father.
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But today, as Dana prepares for high school, his aspirations are much different.

Two years at the Reichert House — an after school program in East Gainesville for troubled kids — have taught Dana how to use his intellect, athleticism and charm toward a positive end.

In June he graduated from Howard W. Bishop Middle School with A’s and B’s. He will play on the Gainesville High School football team next year, and he is idolized by his peers.

This is the story of the transformation of Dana Grant Jr. and hundreds of other boys in East Gainesville who have made the Reichert House a success.

“OUT COME THE MASK AND GLOVE CAUSE WE AIN’T FEELIN THE LOVE”

— JAY–Z

Twenty years ago, police officer Tony Jones decided he could not watch his hometown be destroyed by drugs and violence.

Crack dealers had taken over East Gainesville, turning it into a circus of crime.

Children were the main act.

They sold drugs, used drugs, ditched school, stole cars, stole buses, punched and kicked each other, and ultimately, wound up lost in the criminal justice system.

Jones knew East Gainesville wasn’t full of bad seeds, just kids who saw crime as their only way out of poverty. But he grew tired of locking kids up just to let them out and lock them up again.

He wanted to show them they could be more than what they saw, and he decided early intervention was his city’s only chance.

He and a friend, the late Richard Baxter, set up shop in the community center of a government housing project and invited neighborhood boys to chat.

He had no blueprint. He just showed up once a week and tried to start a dialogue.

Each week, he returned to growing numbers. Soon, some of the kids began to change their attitudes.

Then their behaviors.

That’s when Jones knew he was on to something.

Today, counselors at the Reichert House, named for one of the program’s early benefactors, pick up about 150 middle school and high school boys from all over Gainesville each day and bring them to a new facility on Southeast Second Avenue.

It’s not some magical place where kids come in as hardheaded thugs and walk out transformed. If only it were that easy.

Gainesville may not be Compton, Philadelphia or Baltimore, but it’s not exactly Pleasantville either.

By their teenage years, many of the boys have felt more pain, desperation and fear than most do in a lifetime.

But they are still young, and, if they work hard, most are still within reach — if someone is willing to extend a hand.

“ALL THE STREETS ARE FILLED WITH PAIN AROUND MY WAY”

— TALIB KWELI

Walk around East Gainesville today and you’ll begin to understand why many Reichert House boys don’t think they are worth much.

Children, some as young as 5 years old, play unsupervised in the streets.

Infrastructure is difficult to find — many roads are not lined with sidewalks let alone landscaping.

Police patrol with one hand on their holstered guns.

On some blocks, it’s considered a small miracle if a house has both a hinged door and a lawn not littered with garbage.

On the Fourth of July, neighbors debate whether they are hearing fireworks or gunshots.

But East Gainesville wasn’t always this way.

“In the old days, the sense of community revolved around these guys,” said Byers Hickmon, Reichert House director, affectionately rubbing the top of his young son’s head. “That sense of community has fallen by the wayside.”

Doug Williams, one of the middle school counselors, remembers growing up in East Gainesville when young men couldn’t walk to the end of the block without a half–dozen motherly neighbors getting in their business.

“I can remember just a little bit when neighbors cared about each other,” Williams said. “Now, they don’t care enough to say, ‘Get over here boy!’ or ‘I’m gonna tell yo momma!’”

Today, neighbors may be around, but if their own kids aren’t involved, they aren’t concerned.

The men have different theories about why the community they once knew is long gone.

But there is one reason they agree upon: absent fathers.

“Daddy’s not in the picture anymore,” Williams said. “Black men have fallen off the face of the earth.”

Whether they’re detained, dead or disinterested, fathers are sorely missed in East Gainesville.

A billboard depicting a black family with the words “Fathers your children need you” faces Northeast Eighth Avenue in the front yard of a low–income apartment building.

Those words ring true throughout the state. In Florida, almost 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers. For white children, the figure is 38 percent.

A vicious pattern has been destroying black communities for years, Williams explains: Single mothers raise their children alone, often working two or three jobs just to get by.

Forget fixing a hot meal for dinner or rehearsing multiplication tables after school — simply talking to their children has become a luxury few can afford.

And without attention from mommy and daddy, young boys often turn to the streets or the media for role models.

Both mainstream hip–hop culture and the city’s neighborhood corners reinforce the same message: It’s the drugs, the guns and the money that turn a boy into a real man.

In Alachua County, where 20 percent of children are black, roughly 65 percent of juvenile crimes are committed by black children.

This is a challenge East Gainesville — and thousands of communities across America — faces today.

And this is the challenge the Reichert House tackles head on.

“IN THIS GAME, THE LESSON’S IN YOUR EYES TO SEE”

— TUPAC SHAKUR

Because most of the kids in the program have grown up not knowing their fathers, discipline is often the most important lesson for a newcomer.

It’s one thing for a teenager to physically stand up to his mother.

But when the authority figure is a guy like Williams, boys quickly see what it looks like to stand up to a man.

“It rocks their world,” he said.

Williams is 6 feet 8 inches, 300 pounds.

For the counselors with less intimidating statures, push–ups are a favorite disciplinary tool.

They shout, “Beat your face!” and the boys drop to the ground in a heartbeat.

Once a sense of authority is established, counselors teach the boys the meaning of the word “potential.”

As inconceivable as it may sound, most of the boys don’t realize success outside of sports and entertainment is attainable.

They are products of their environments.

Michael Johnson, 23, recently returned to Gainesville after graduating from the University of Central Florida.

When his uncle asked about his future, Johnson told him he planned to attend medical school.

His uncle frowned and asked why Johnson didn’t choose basketball instead.

If Johnson hadn’t spent seven years at the Reichert House, he may have thought the same way.

The program regularly brings in black lawyers, police officers and businessmen to mentor the boys. For most, it is their first interaction with black professionals.

Field trips to Tallahassee, Atlanta and South Carolina show the boys what a life outside of East Gainesville looks like. They have met black politicians, judges and military leaders.

They learn that everything in life is earned. Good things will not always come to you. Sometimes you have to take them.

Empowered by new goals, the boys build a sense of self–worth.

And when you have something to lose, your whole life can change in an instant.

Many of the boys have joined varsity sports teams, have been admitted to universities or have started their own local businesses since beginning the Reichert House program.

Of the boys who stay in the program through their senior years of high school, 95 percent graduate or earn their GEDs.

That’s in a county where the graduation rate for black students hovers around 50 percent.

Reichert House staff tries to track all the boys who come through the program, whether they complete it or not, for at least two years after they leave.

Those who bail out early invariably end up back in trouble.

Over the years, there have been casualties.

Two boys who left prematurely were gunned down in East Gainesville, a memory still hard for many counselors to bear.

“If they don’t stay with the program, and they go back to those poverty–stricken neighborhoods, somewhere down the line it takes a toll,” Hickmon said. “It takes a toll.”

“IT’S HARD TO TURN ON THE HOOD THAT MADE YOU”

— COMMON

There are days when Dana Grant Jr. doesn’t want to board the Reichert House van.

Days like his first in the program, when he asked counselor Caleb Young why, knowing Dana’s father, the staff would expect him to make anything of his life.

After all, in a place where reputation is everything, the instant Dana’s 14–year–old mother gave him his father’s name, he had the respect that takes most men years to earn.

Living up to his name was a job he took seriously. All the kids knew not to mess with Dana Grant Jr.

His mother remembers how proud Dana was when his father was locked up for armed burglary and aggravated assault.

Desperate to show her son there were other men who he could look up to, his mother enrolled him in the Reichert House.

Two years later, Dana gets satisfaction out of the progress he has made.

But his accomplishments seem worlds away when he goes home at night to one of the toughest neighborhoods in Gainesville.

Those achievements are painfully distant when he walks past the “F––– You” scrawled on his doorpost and into the two–bedroom apartment he shares with his four siblings and his mother. She calls it an orphanage.

His neighbors are known for selling drugs, fighting on a whim and not much else.

Where Dana has grown up, kids don’t have the luxury of being kids for long.

So while the Reichert House pushes Dana toward a brighter future, the streets pull him in the opposite direction.

Young hopes that with more time in the program Dana will grow mentally strong enough to ignore his surroundings and stay focused on his future.

“I know Dana in his heart of hearts ain’t no thug,” Young said. “He a baby. He ain’t even close to bein’ a thug.”

While some days he is in the mood to agree, other days Dana said he relates closely to the lyrics of gangster rappers.

On one June afternoon, as he made his case for the similarities between his life and theirs, one of Dana’s favorite rappers, Lil Wayne, played in the background:

“That’s life y’all,” Lil Wayne said. “Sometimes you gotta learn to swim with no lifeguard.”

Boys see program’s payoffs in visit with Reichert House graduate

A shiny Dodge Viper. Yellow with black stripes.

Evidence.

For many Reichert House boys, talk is cheap. You’ve got to show them proof. Proof that it’s not only the black men on MTV and ESPN who can make it out of poverty.

On a spring day in Atlanta, the Viper did the trick.

It belonged to a man who “made it” — Benjamin Crawford.

The boys were visiting Crawford, who owns two construction companies and a fitness center franchise, at his Georgia home.

Crawford is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Marines. He holds a master’s degree in psychology. He has won national and international bodybuilding championships.

And he is a Reichert House graduate.

Crawford attended the program as a teenager in the 1980s.

Growing up, his father wasn’t around, and his mother was always working. So Crawford found his first mentor in police officer Tony Jones, one of two Reichert House staff members at the time.

He admired Jones’ consistency and commitment and took comfort knowing other boys were coping with similar challenges.

At the Reichert House, Crawford felt he was respected.

In time, confidence replaced the anger and self–doubt that once consumed him.

It took Crawford some time to get used to receiving the attention, concern and love of an adult black man.

He eventually decided that he owed it to Jones not only to stay out of trouble but also to go to college.

Those plans were nearly derailed when his longtime girlfriend became pregnant the summer after his high school graduation.

Suddenly saddled with tremendous responsibilities, Crawford saw his promising future slipping away.

But Jones was there to support him, encouraging Crawford to be the kind of father he had never known while pushing him toward college and the military.

It wasn’t easy, but the determination and focus he’d learned from Jones helped Crawford become one of the Reichert House’s most successful graduates.

Without hesitation, Crawford said that his accomplishments are a testament to the Reichert House program.

That’s why he was eager to let the boys take turns sitting in his Viper and why he took the time to show them all the buildings in Atlanta that bear his name.

He is the proof so many of them need, and he knows it.

“Even if you do mess up, you can redeem yourself,” he said. “Look at me.”

http://www.alligator.org/articles/2008/07/29/news/features/080729_reichert.txt