The Streets - January 2009

a column by Paulette Lewis


"It is so ordered by this court that you are to serve a term of seven years in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction." My knees went weak, upon hearing the judge’s statement.

I held onto the banister in front of the judge's seat, standing next to one of my all-time favorite mentees from my program, Urban Success, and I felt as if I had just been hit by a train. Seven years? It rang in my head as the judge gave my mentee's mother the opportunity to give her handcuffed son a hug and a kiss before he was led away by deputies.

I couldn’t have moved if I had wanted to. The judge looked at me and asked, "Will you go visit him in prison?" Without hesitation I replied, "Absolutely." He looked at me for a moment as if stunned and said, "That’s very admirable.”

I don’t know about that. Admirable would be if I had actually invested more time with him during a time when he needed me but pretended not to. How did an 18-year old young man working to complete his high school education and keep money in his pocket with a legitimate job end up getting seven years in prison?

I feel partly to blame.

As a mentor for high risk kids and adults under Urban Success, I work with some extreme individuals. This young man was not hostile by nature. He wasn’t on the corner trying to make a thug name for himself. He wasn’t shooting up the block or beating up random people as they walked down the street like some of my kids.

My mentee usually stayed out of trouble. His "high risk" status came from the neighborhood he lived in, one of the most dangerous in Cincinnati, and from his affiliations. Other members of his particular gang were way more active than he ever was. For the most part he went to school and minded his own business.

Until the violent shooting death of his brother last summer.

His brother’s murder is still unsolved. As a mentor, I like to think I know what is going on with "my kids" and that they call every time they need to talk. They don’t. At the time of my former mentee's murder, I was actively working to calm the street activities of a very large and destructive gang. They required almost every waking moment, and I just didn’t make the time to help my other mentee grieve for the death of his brother.

I had taken him to his new school orientation and spent a little time with him to the point where I thought he was alright. He seemed alright. Deep down, he wasn’t. I realize now that he began doing negative things just to work himself through the pain, the confusion, the anger, the loss. His brother was shot three times and the only item the killer took was his gold chain. Not something worth dying for. It’s been well over year now, and it’s still hard for me to comprehend as I look at my pictures of him.

As soon as I got the call that the brother of my mentee had been shot, I raced to the scene, to the doorsteps of his house. If it was true, I expected to see a violent crime scene with police tape, blood splattered on the ground, and witnesses eager to tell the police everything they knew.

Instead, it was quiet, with no signs of a struggle or shots fired. It looked so normal I was tempted to ring his doorbell. I didn’t accept it until his funeral, when his crew filed into the service with his picture on an R.I.P. shirt.

My mentee went down the wrong path because he fell through the cracks of Urban Success. I foolishly believed he was fine every time he said he was. He appeared to be coping with things pretty well. As a mentor, this experience has taught me to balance my time and efforts with each person and group I work with, and to gently insist on staying active and up to date in the lives of all my mentees.

If I would have been more involved with him, I would have been aware of what he was doing, and I would have put a stop to it. My mentees give you that kind of power in their lives, when they know that you love them and that someone else runs the risk of being hurt by their choices and their actions.

I pride myself in being a master of re-direction.

Unfortunately, all I can do now is pray for him, encourage him, and be here for him through his prison experience, and hope that he comes home with the love of God in his heart and the desire to lead a street-free life.

For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.


Paulette Lewis

Paulette Lewis