We recently visited the Salvation Army Red Shield Center in Englewood, to hang out with Corps Ministries Director Theo Coleman, a former crack addict whose story of redemption has impacted youths he’s worked with over the past five years.
Some of the youths’ stories were quite moving, offering clear lenses into larger issues we confront in the inner city — and just as clear evidence of how mentoring can change lives. So we are sharing the stories of three young men.
The first, Carl Velez, 21, lost first his father, then his mother as a kid, spiraling into street life before a mentor at the center helped him process his grief and anger.
And though he’s moved from Englewood, Velez still returns to the community center where a mentor was able to break through to a teen who was drowning in loss.
“I used to live around the corner. But now I live on 119th Street. I’ve been coming here since before this was built, before it was anything,” says the young man with dreadlocks and a wide grin.
The Adele and Robert Stern Red Shield Center, at 945 W. 69th St., opened in 2006, a $16 million expansion of an existing center and a major investment in a neighborhood beleaguered by gang and drug crime.
With a $3 million gift from the Sterns and donation of land by the city, it brought 60,000 square feet of new recreational space to an area then a desert of alternatives to the street.
“After-school programs would always get boring, so the Salvation Army was always right here, and I always thought like, I know it’s something going on in there,” Velez says of what first drew him in the doors.
“Like they try to make us better, as in people, in general. And not only us, themselves, too. They’ve come a long way, all this,” he says, waving at the state-of-the-art fitness center, indoor walking track, multipurpose rooms, worship center and myriad youth programs.
“We have groups like YME, Junior NBA. They take us on trips, to explore more, to like get us in a better mind of what we want to do in life. And I appreciate that,” Velez says.
Of his mentor in the Celebrate Launch and Landing program that meets every Wednesday, Velez says: “He teaches me a lot, a lot of life lessons, through a lot of hard times. It’s all about life, and the respect and love he shows me. So I just try to follow in his footsteps as much as I can.”
That program, 3 years old, draws some 100 youths ages 10 to 19 weekly, seeking to steer them from gang and drug snares, with each assigned a mentor.
“My father died when I was young. My mother died, too. So I had it rough growing up.
“I always had a humble mind, always respected what I got. If I didn’t need it, then that meant I shouldn’t have it,” Velez says.
A former mentor here changed his life.
“Mr. Al, he used to work here. He doesn’t work here anymore. But he was my first father figure. And he taught me a lot after I lost my Daddy.
“Mr. Al was like, ‘Because of your Dad leaving, it doesn’t have to affect you. You still could talk to him here and there. Just let God know,” Velez recounts.
“He’d tell me, like, ‘Your Dad’s still with you. I can tell you that he’s got his hand on your shoulder right now, as we speak.’ And that meant so much to me.
“And I just changed my ways, ever since then,” he says.
“I see people like skipping school, smoking, like doing a lot of things that they shouldn’t be doing. And like, to me I don’t even want to see that, because I’ve been through that when I was younger, doing everything that they doing now. It’s like watching myself grow up all over again, from another mirror.
“I see potential in every kid that I look at,” he says. “I see potential, and like, I want them to do better. I hope for them to do better. I pray for them to do better, every day.”
• Isaac House: Englewood teen finds missing father figure in his mentors
• Jaridian Lee: Mentors help Englewood teen avert path leading to jail, death