It’s a few days before Christmas, and the Salvation Army Red Shield Center in Englewood teems with youth in the fitness center, basketball court and hallways.
But at 5 p.m., activity comes to a stop. Youths ages 13 to 18 head toward a chapel in the building at 945 W. 69th St., sink into plush red chairs and turn their attention to Corps Ministries Director Theo Coleman’s praise and worship band.
A talented vocalist who studied two years at University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, flunking out when alcohol took over his life, the 49-year-old Coleman leads the youth in gospel songs, then prayer. It’s a staple of the Celebrate Launch and Landing program, every Wednesday night at this South Side community center.
Prayer is followed by a presentation. Tonight it’s one of the program mentors, who is preparing for a February trip to Ghana and gives the youths a lesson on that African country, ending, as usual, with dinner.
The 100 young men and women listening are notably attentive, respectful.
“This is like a safe house, a place to relax, get exercise. But the main reason is so you won’t be outside and get caught up,” says Jaridian Lee, 19, who’s been coming here since the center opened in 2006.
“They’re like religious a little bit, want to put God in your life, an understanding of God within yourself. But they really just want to better you all the way around,” Lee says. He used to live around the corner but moved to Beverly when his mom died, yet still comes.
With a break in the program, the youths gravitate toward mentors in the room; each mentor is assigned a cadre of five to seven teens.
Teens surround Capt. Corey Hughes, pastor of the center, and Coleman, whom Hughes hired five years ago to help run the youth programs. Coleman is a former crack addict whose story of redemption he freely shares, and which resonates with these youths.
“I would find myself going on crack sprees, spend all my money, then sell my coat and tell my family I got robbed,” says the soft-spoken Coleman, whose smile engulfs the youths in his sphere.
“You’re not going through physical pain in addiction. It’s mental, the degrading of yourself,” says Coleman, who started drinking in college, got addicted to drugs and spiraled downward the next 15 years, experiencing jail and homelessness.
“You keep falling. You feel defeated. I lived on the street for two years,” says Coleman, recounting a cyclical loss of jobs and marriages, unsuccessful rehabs, loss of everyone and everything in his life – and more importantly, dignity and hope.
Coleman got clean in 2007; it was a few days before Christmas.
“When we heard his story, at first we were like, ‘Theo? Naw. That’s not for real,'” said Isaac House, 18, who’s also been coming to the center since he was a kid. He and his brother gravitate to father figures here they lack at home with a single mother, he says.
“It, like, shows people can change,” House says of Coleman. “And how brave he is to tell us his story; I mean, people wouldn’t open up to others, especially to people younger than them, if they really didn’t care. It lets us know we’re not the only ones going through things.”
One of Coleman’s failed rehabilitation stints, at a Salvation Army adult rehab center in Indianapolis, laid the foundation to break the shackles, seven years before he’d actually get sober.
The Cincinnati native, who travels two hours round-trip from Hobart, Ind., to Englewood, met a kitchen supervisor at that Indianapolis rehab, Steven McNary, with whom he’d become close. He lost contact with McNary after relapsing.
Years later, friends from rehab saw him on the street and reported his circumstances to McNary, who had become head of a Salvation Army center in Gary, Ind. McNary asked them to give Coleman his card.
“I’d been up three to four days using drugs and alcohol. I had blisters on my feet from walking all over the city,” Coleman says. “I was tired. I walked into a McDonald’s where the manager usually called police as soon as she saw me. I handed her McNary’s card, said I needed help, could she please call for me.
“She looked at the card and pointed to the back of the restaurant. I sat there 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and she brought me food the whole day, until there was a ticket waiting for me at the bus station,” Coleman says. “I didn’t know how I was going to walk there. Just then, a postal worker eating dinner looked up and said he’d take me in his mail truck. It was a series of miracles.”
Eleven years later, Coleman, married 10 years to wife Dawn, has worked his way up in the Salvation Army, from thrift store sorter to substance abuse counselor, to the call in 2013 from Hughes, another person he’d known from past rehabs.
The Celebrate Launch and Landing program, 3 years old, seeks to steer teens from gang and drug snares on the streets of one of our city’s most beleaguered neighborhoods.
“We wanted to mentor the young people we saw outside of the building,” Hughes says. “We start them in the gymnasium, then bring them into the chapel. Our topics can range from violence to addiction to everything in between. In the beginning, the youth trickled in. Now we have about 100 that come every Wednesday.”
Coleman says he’s simply giving back what was given to him, trying to steer young people from the mistakes he made.
“This is like ground zero. I see full-blown addiction every day, and in children as young as 12 and 13. I see kids with PTSD, trying to cope with situations in life by using drugs, many smoking this gas station weed, ‘K2,’ a synthetic, snorting bath salt, or drinking ‘the lean,’ cough syrup in juice. All of this just opens up the door,” he says.
“I see kids link up with people they feel can help them survive the streets. Add drug use to gang activity and you get murder. And once they’re baptized in that murder stuff, it gets to be really bad,” Coleman says.
“I talk to kids every day that have dealt with that. I pray for them to change. You’re talking to a man that knows God can do the impossible. That’s what I ask God to do for these kids. It’s my mission.”
And on this night, a few days before Christmas, one of the young men who has been coming here since he was a kid calls Coleman a gift.
“I had felt like once a person hit rock bottom, that’s it. Ain’t nothing but bottom. And like, for him to uplift himself and become the man he is today, I appreciate that,” says Carl Velez, 21, who still comes, though his family moved to Roseland.
“He didn’t have to tell us about what he did. But everybody’s got a story, and he wanted to let us know what his was, what he’s been through, how he became what he is today. That’s like, real life.”