Conversation : WITH FRED SHAW OF BOYS 2 MEN : ‘I Look for Hope in His Eyes’

The city of Compton declared a police emergency last week after four people were killed and five others wounded in gang-linked shootings within one week. One of the people named to a citizens’ group established to seek ways to combat crime in the Compton area is FRED SHAW Jr., a former sheriff’s deputy and now the co-director of Boys 2 Men, a group home in Compton for youths who are down to their last chance. Opened in June 1994, it offers placement for up to 10 youths ages 12 to 18, most of them veterans of serious crimes. Shaw spoke with TRIN YARBOROUGH.

I like to take the kids who are the warriors, the really tough kids, because they have spirit and a sense of courage and integrity. They’re leaders. They can lead for good as well as for evil if you can just reach them. And if you reach them you’ve become a true expert, because you succeeded on the toughest testing ground.

All the kids we take are wards of the court who have done serious crimes and are severely incorrigible. Before we accept a kid we interview him in jail or wherever, and I always look to see if there’s some hope in his eyes. I’m looking for kids with a desire to be better, but who just don’t know how. No matter how bad he’s been, if he says he wants to come to our program and if I see a little glimmer of hope in his eyes, 90% of the time I’ll take him.

I don’t put too much stock in the psychological evaluations. A lot of them are wrong. But sometimes a kid has been so degraded over his life that to save him you’d have to use so much energy you wouldn’t be able to help the others. Those kids just seem shattered. Maybe they were crack babies, maybe at a young age they just saw too much. But you can tell that the life force is just not in them any more.

When we first opened about 15 months ago, we took a 14-year-old boy no one wanted. In probation camp he hid under beds and attacked the other boys. He had a fight every day of his life. My sister Jewel Ellis, who’s co-director, and I went to interview him and when he came down to meet us and saw us for the first time, he gave us a smile. It was like he somehow knew us and somehow knew we’d come to help. I still remember that moment. And I said to my sister, “Let’s take him.” He became a model kid in all the months he stayed with us, as if all he’d needed all along was for someone to believe in him and care about him. When it was time for him to leave we hated to see him go.

What will happen to the shattered kids? When you asked I felt a chill of sadness run down me, thinking of some of their faces. I know they will fall down between the cracks, end up in prison, in mental hospitals, dead or homeless on the streets. But the kids we do take would end up shattered too if we didn’t step in while they’re still salvageable.

Think of it this way: It’s as if a bridge is on fire and you have to get people across before it collapses. You have to shove across the ones who’ll take the chance and try to make it, because if you take the time to struggle with the ones who are afraid to cross, then everybody will perish. And maybe if you can get the ones with courage across, they can find a way to help the others. Because that’s our real hope--that the ones we salvage will spread their influence outward, helping others.

Look around at the kids here now. If you want to know if our work here is good or bad, just look at the children. Know us by the fruit we bear. We hope soon to expand the home to take 24 kids, and more eventually. If our program can get big enough we might even be able to reach the shattered ones.

Teaching From the Ground Up

DUANE RICE

Teacher, Boys 2 Men

When a new kid comes here I don’t even look at any information about his background, because it’s irrelevant. I just start dealing with him at the point he is when he arrives. I know for a fact that everyone can change their lives by changing their decisions.

Suppose,for example, that your mother dies; in that situation a person could get drunk and crash his car into a wall or he could decide to became a doctor or a counselor to help people who have felt his same grief. I never get discouraged if a kid backslides or even over the one or two who left here. There are so many, many kids out there hoping for a chance that if one decides not to take advantage of it, that’s up to him. Him and God.

I teach the kids martial arts and also academic subjects. Although they’re teens, most read at about the third grade level and some can’t read at all. Many don’t know where the United States is, don’t know where Africa is, don’t know where Mexico is. Some have never even heard of the U.S. Constitution. And you know the sad part? Some were making As and Bs in school.

We use [donated] books from Applied Scholastics International, a whole different educational system based on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It starts with basic phonics and goes through grammar, punctuation and how to use a dictionary. The kids have to study really hard. There’s also a workbook on how to handle everyday problems, like when you make a mistake at work or someone is trying to start a fight with you.