Put down the pistol
James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life, speaks recently to a community group gathered for its Put Down the Pistol program.

Kenneth McClain Jr., 21, walks into a liquor store on the corner of Natural Bridge Avenue and Union Boulevard. He's not there to buy a 40-ouncer or a bottle. He's there to help his friend Frankie Edwards, 21, who is butting heads with the store owner. 

The owner tells them to leave. But McClain says, "We just want to put a flyer in the window."

The flyer reads: "Put Down the Pistol."

The owner is visibly confused. That's not what he expected out of the former gang members, who grew up in one St. Louis' most dangerous neighborhoods.

"Whether I'm just talking to someone or passing them a flyer, I do this every day," McClain said. "Because I already know what God's got in store for me. I'm going to be the next Malcolm X out of St. Louis."

"No, you're going to be the next Kenneth McClain," said Michael Harris Sr., an ex-convict who was also putting up Put Down the Pistol posters.

Every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., about 100 people meet to end violence in their neighborhoods. Designed by the nonprofit Better Family Life Inc., the Put Down the Pistol program helps people turn their lives around through education and job training.

McClain had been selling drugs and running with a gang since he was nine. Now he goes out into the community on weekends and finds someone stuck in the same downward spiral.

A friend from McClain's neighborhood - who cleaned up his life after joining Better Family Life - told McClain to check out the program. After hearing the group's message, McClain enrolled at St. Louis Community College, along with his friend Edwards. That's how it works.

Similar to a support group, the people meet to talk about the progress they have made in their own lives before going out into the community on Saturdays. On Jan. 8, the group included several young black men from North City, a mother who lost her teenage daughter to violence, several mothers and fathers who brought in their sons, and four Construction Careers Center Charter High School students who want to make a difference.

James Clark, vice president of community outreach for the Better Family Life, calls himself and site director Errol Busch the group's "quarterbacks."

In his typical passing game, Clark invited Charles Wilson, 18, to stand in front of the room.

Clark told the group that a year ago on Dec. 23, Wilson's brother called him to say that Wilson got arrested for a gun charge. His court date was Christmas Eve.

"Because of my commitment to his brother, I go to court," Clark said. "The judge looks at me and said, ‘You need something?' I said ‘I need to get him out of here.' Judge looks at the case and lets him out. Then he comes up here."

Everyone cheered when Clark announced that Wilson graduated from high school and is now enrolled in the Metropolitan Education and Training Center, Better Family Life's training and education center.

"I went through some tough times," Wilson said. "It's time for me to do grown-man things, time to give back and look at the bigger picture. There's better things out here than just looking at concrete."

‘Everyone on these walls is dead'

On Jan. 8, the piercing cold wind kept the group from going to door-to-door to talk to their neighbors about the potential work opportunities in the community.

Instead they went from barber to auto shop, talking with owners and putting up posters in their businesses. When they stopped in the Tee Shirt Shop at 4500 Natural Bridge Ave., the owner, Tunicia Williams, said she wanted to get involved.

"Everyone on these walls is dead, and most of them are young, 15 years of age," Williams said, pointing to the T-shirts on the wall. "After they go to the funeral home to make arrangements, they come here to get a T-shirt made."

She said James Clark made a big impact on her when she was in juvenile detention at 14. She's now 34.

"I couldn't wait ‘til Tuesday to hear him speak, because it was all positive," she said. "It was uplifting."

Edwards and McClain agreed with her.

For McClain, the older men in his life never tried to steer him to education. They showed him how to make a living selling drugs. And that's the way it is for many young men in his neighborhood, he said.

"They put them down instead of building them up," McClain said. "And that's what I love about Better Family Life."

"My daddy's strung out on dope right now," he said. "Mr. Clark is like my second father. He tells me to go school, go ahead and get that $8 an hour job. It isn't the best job in the world, but it makes you money and keeps you off the streets."

Edwards said all of his older cousins and many other family members are locked up. He didn't have anyone to look up to until Better Family Life.

"If Better Family Life hadn't jumped into my life, I would have been locked up or dead," Edwards said. "I would have probably hurt some people out here, and I would have been regretting it. But I had these role models who treated me like family - grandfathers, uncles, aunties."

"Yeah, Mr. Buchanan is like the granddaddy," McClain said of Charles Buchanan Jr., a dedicated volunteer with Better Family Life.

Michael Harris was sitting in the backseat of the car, listening to Edwards and McClain. He wished he would have found Better Family Life at a younger age, but now he is determined to "help the community that I helped destroy," he said.

"You can't be something that you can't see," Harris said. "If people have the pistol in their hand and drugs in their hands and they don't know there is some free job training out here, they aren't going to take that avenue. We put these flyers out here so they can have the resources."

For more information about the Put Down the Pistol program, call 314-381-8200 or visit the Community Outreach Center at 6017 Natural Bridge Ave.

 

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