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Mentors help Englewood teen avert path leading to jail, death

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 third, Jaridian Lee, 19, grew up in a family grounded in the streets, joining a gang at an early age. His mother had her first child at 16.

At 13, Lee became caregiver for his mother, afflicted with Lupus scleroderma.

He’d hustle and do whatever it took to pay the bills ’til she passed.

Maudlyne Ihejirika

He’d thwarted death many times. But the day he dropped off his 1-year-old daughter — minutes before his car got shot up — his mentor’s words at this community center sank in.

“It was only two things that was there for me. And that was death or jail. I didn’t like neither one of those options. So I got to better myself,” says Lee, a disarming smile belying chilling experiences.

“It was a lot that was going downhill when my mom passed. So I move around to stay distanced. I used to stay right around the corner. I stay in Beverly now,” he says.

“That was the main thing, getting myself from out this environment, to stay focused on being better. I can’t be around no foolishness.”

Though he’s moved, he still returns to the center he’s attended since he was a kid.

On a recent night, a mentor in the Celebrate Launch and Landing program that meets Wednesdays at 945 W. 69th St. took one look at him, sensed something, prayed over him.

“I didn’t know where it came from,” Lee says.

“But I told him thank you. There just might be something that I do need prayer for.

“He always be on me about the little stuff, wanting me to stay focused.

“I like that a lot, because sometimes you don’t really hear that from people. You don’t know if they do care. But sometimes it’s just that moment when you’re just like, ‘They care.’ You can tell. So I want to be more responsible,” he says.

Lee talks of one day attending college, pledging Kappa Alpha Psi — his mentor is in a fraternity. Accountability is a word he uses often. But it wasn’t a word he grew up with.

(From left to right) At the Salvation Army Red Shield Center in Englewood, mentee Carl Velez, 21, Corps Ministries Director Theo Coleman, and mentees Isaac House, 18, and Jaridian Lee, 19, gather for the Celebrate Launch and Landing mentoring program held every Wednesday at the South Side center. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Drug addiction plagued his parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

“Being in that environment, my Mama was always in the streets. It was like being brought into this,” Lee says.

“I’ve seen, like, anything you can possibly name: People getting killed in front of you, shot; holding your friends who’ve been shot; people shooting at my car; you just left somewhere; and people dying,” he says.

“Then my Mama being sick. You don’t know how it feels for your mother to be sick, and she’s now like your baby.

“It was every day, every day, continuously, I got to do for my mother — at a young age, dealing with this pressure. I’m 13, hustling, bringing money home, just to do for my Mama.

“And I gang-banged. So our house was a target,” he says. “We’re in the house, and they want to come kill us. It was either keep a gun or be killed.”

In that life, jail always loomed as a fear. Death, ironically, did not.

“I knew I never wanted to go to jail,” Lee says.

“So I wasn’t the kind that would just get mad and not think. I’d get mad and think. So I never was really in nothing, just around it. And I got tired of that.

“I got tired of being tired, tired of living with demons,” he adds.

“I had just dropped my daughter off before I got shot in my car. So now I’m worried for my life. I ain’t care before, because we can walk out onto the corner, the next street, and be gone. But I’ve learned life is precious. You get one. And today, I’m blessed.”


Carl Velez: A mentor breaks through to Englewood teen who lost both parents
Isaac House: Englewood teen finds missing father figure in his mentors
At Salvation Army oasis in Englewood, former addict helps teens find their way