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Boys & Girls Club was his sanctuary from trouble; now he's the director
How can a man's heart, cut so deeply as a teenager, grow so big?
How does he not only work his own way off the streets, but also carry his grandmothers to the dream of a home of their own? How does he check his pain and not only forgive, but befriend the father who left him as a child?
How did this young man's heart swell so large it took in hundreds of children in need of the same direction he once needed?
"I'm a positive person," Markes Thomas simply says. "If I learned anything, it's to surround the negative with positive things.
"My mother still influences me that way. She always told me she wanted me to be something, and I still have her with me."
It was Paulette Cooper's violent death that shook the boy, who was only 14 when she was shot to death. The tragedy left him and his 3-year-old brother, Tabarus Wright, to live in their grandmother's tiny, two-bedroom rental where their great-grandmother also lived.
It has always been a tough neighborhood. Drug dealers work the streets. Markes' grandmother, Essie Mae Thomas, says she never dared leave anything on her back porch at night because it would be gone in the morning. But the move also set the boys down just blocks away from the Northwest Fort Lauderdale Boys & Girls Club.
Eighteen years ago that club became Markes' sanctuary. Today he is its director.
"Markes was really devastated by the death of his mother," says Sam Jordan, now the program director of the Broward County Boys & Girls Club system. Markes remembers that it took a gang of relatives to hold him down when he was told of her killing. "I was out of my mind. I was lashing out at anything," he says.
Jordan says for a kid on those streets, the loss of his only true compass in life could have put him into another life.
"It could have been a turning point because he knew the streets. He could have fallen to that influence," says Jordan. "But he also had a strong family and he wanted to make them and his mother proud."
It was Jordan who gave Markes his first job, overseeing the game room at the Northwest club. Jordan was also the young man's mentor and recognized his potential.
"Markes had the ability to step away from the negative and disruptive things that the other guys were doing. Yet he was still accepted by them," Jordan says.
Perhaps he was accepted because he came from their neighborhood, lived their realities. The game-room job paid minimum wage, and at 14 he had to manage his salary. "My grandmother and great-grandmother were hardly making it," he recalls now. "There were times we had to choose between paying the light bill or the gas. We couldn't do both."
He knew there was easier money on the streets, but instead of following that lure, his heart grew bigger.
"I knew the drug dealers. Some were my own relatives," Markes says. "But I also knew where that could lead. What would happen to my family if I got caught up in that?"
That concern also led to a change in his dreams. By the time he was 21, Markes had taken a program director's job at the club and was enrolled at Broward Community College. He wanted to go on to Florida A & M to get a sociology degree. But by then his great-grandmother, Mary Barnes, was slipping into the ravages of Alzheimer's.
"I couldn't leave my family alone. My grandmother was working and taking care of my great-grandmother. My brother was 10. I couldn't just up and leave."
Markes kept moving up in the Boys & Girls Club, becoming program director of the Lester White Unit in southwest Fort Lauderdale, and then the program director of his original club, renamed The Nan Knox Center after its longtime philanthropist and friend.
It was also about that time when Markes met his father, a shadowy figure from his childhood.
"My father was sick. He had gotten into drugs and was very ill. But he saw something in the newspaper about me and we got together," Markes says. And the young man found more room in his heart.
"We built a relationship for the last few years of his life. He died when he was 52, but right to the end he was braggin' on me and the house."
All those years, The House, Markes admits, was a goal.
"He wanted to get his great-grandmother a house before she passed," says Doris Paschall, director of affordable housing for the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority. "He said that even as a little boy he remembered his grandmothers talking about someday owning their own home."
In 1998, Fort Lauderdale had joined a federal Housing and Urban Development program to rehabilitate decaying homes using the labor of young men and women learning construction trades.
The corner house that Markes was eyeing in Broward Estates was the first to be converted. Ironically, many of the young men working on it -- learning to lay tile, hang drywall, landscape -- came from Markes' own neighborhood.
"A couple I even recognized from the club," Markes says.
He kept his purchase of the house a secret, even while he tried to pack up the tiny two-bedroom house where his grandmother had lived and paid rent for 30 years.
On the October day they moved in, everyone's heart swelled a bit.
"Oh, I was surprised," says Essie Mae Thomas. "It was something we had talked about for so long. I suppose it was a dream we never really thought would come true." Her own mother, about eight years into the effects of her Alzheimer's, also, in her own way, enjoyed the realization of a dream. Mary Barnes had two years in the house before she died.
"She loved the screened-in porch. She always loved planting flowers and working in the yard and it was so peaceful for her to sit and watch the green world outside," Thomas says.
The housing authority's Doris Paschall says: "We all cried that day when they moved in. You know, with all that had happened to Markes, he could have taken another direction. We see it so often. He could have taken another direction.
"He was 25 and what a responsibility. When you see things like that, you want to help."
In June of 1999, Markes was named the director of the Nan Knox club. Last year, his brother, Tabarus, graduated from Broward Christian Academy and is in Broward Community College with plans to go to Arizona State.
Markes is now 32, but he is not done raising his neighborhood. He still recruits young men like Rashad Troutman, who was a kid in Markes' game room and went on to get a sociology degree from Edward Watters College, to work in the club. He gave a landscaping contract to a young man who formed his own company after learning his trade in the HUD internship program and on the job at the house Markes bought.
A couple of years ago Markes put 200 kids together from the club and ran a drug-free cleanup program in the neighborhood surrounding the club. They dressed in yellow T-shirts. Afterward they had a picnic with donated barbecue and sodas. Markes was surprised to see a few young men, who he knew were local drug dealers, join in, actually asking for matching shirts. He welcomed them in, talked with them, shared a knowledge of the neighborhood.
A few days later he noticed they'd moved their operations away from the club. Not quitting, but putting a distance between them.
"You surround negative people with positive things, " Markes says, a motto that his heart and life has embraced. "And the positive can overcome."
Jonathon King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954 356-4691.