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Men on Deck begins the day at jail and ends it at a funeral home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Edward Spann first heard about the Men on Deck tour, he had no idea it would mean beginning his day at a jail and ending it with an undertaker. These were among the extreme destinations that he and other young men journeyed to discuss the consequences of making good or bad choices in life.

In addition to visiting a funeral home and a jail last Thursday, the men visited the Better Family Life Cultural Center, People’s Health Centers, St. Louis Community College, the New Life Evangelistic Center, and the Father’s Support Center.

“I realize from this tour how decisions I make right now can make a difference for me down the road,” says Spann, 22. He says the cautionary tales he heard during the program will make him work harder in his studies in computer technology at Vatterott to land an entry-level help-desk job.

Another participant, Rashad Gladney, 21, says, "This experience can help you do better. It's going to help me see a brighter future because it talks about challenges and shows me how I can do better. Right now I'm in school to be a barber. But from what I've learned, I'm determined to use that to think about owning my own shop."

Better Family Life runs the Men on Deck tour as part of a grant under the federal Workforce Investment Act. One of the program’s placement and retention specialists, Maukiesch Howard, says the tour amounted to “a reality check, pointing out the consequences of choices these young men make.”

Cecilia Ray, a program life coach, says those in the program often face challenges like being foster children, runaways or homeless. Many, she says, are school dropouts.

Norman Miller, another placement and retention specialist, hopes the tour will make young men “think through decisions and make better choices to change their lives in a positive way.” The idea, he says, is to offer them “an empirical understanding of the consequences and rewards of their choices."

At the tour’s first stop, the Pine Lawn jail, officers spoke to the young men about how to behave during a traffic stop, among other things. Police Chief Rickey Collins concedes that some police officers do make mistakes, and he encouraged citizens to use their cell phones to record incidents and file complaints when they believe that they have been mistreated.

He also encouraged them to show courtesy, mentioning scenes where citizens who have been ticketed or fined have taken out their frustrations on police clerical workers and others who process complaints.

“It’s no use being angry with these people because they are not the people who wrote you the summons. Does that make sense?”

The men nod.

“OK,” the chief says, then leads them to the jail, a drab room containing five gray cells, each about the size of a small closet and all lacking a toilet.

“This is not where you want to be,” he tells the men. “But I’m showing you where you are going to end up if you are with the wrong guys.”

The bus is heading for its next stop, the Better Family Life Cultural Center, when a group counselor, Shaune Scott, rose to urge the men to learn to deal with anger, which he likened to the effects of Viagra. Noting that the drug helps men to develop an erection, Scott says men “can’t go around being angry all day” anymore than they can survive a permanent erection. “Why? It will kill you.” He suggested that the young adults put aside the thought that “real men don’t cry,” and acknowledge that it’s normal for men to have “a soft side.”

Better Family Life Inc. started in 1983. It later bought the vacant Emerson Elementary School and received a loan and grants to turn it into a cultural, educational and business center. The nonprofit’s founder and CEO, Malik Ahmed, told the young men they can gain inspiration from the company’s rise.

“You have the power and ability to transform your lives in the way that nobody could imagine,” he told the men. “People like me, my wife (Deborah) and others are bringing this building back to life. The symbol of what you see here is a symbol of what you can do with your life.”

The cultural center is an airy facility, with plenty of brightly painted spaces for dance, music and art studios. The lower level is used for offices and for educational and training activities. The top floor is being slowly turned into space for business development.

“We will teach you what it takes to become entrepreneurs, create your own jobs,” Ahmed said. “It’s about moving us forward as a community, protecting this community and watching it grow.”

He says the group already has invested more than $13 million in the building and is now working to raise $4 million to complete the transformation.

Deborah Ahmed, the center’s senior vice president of cultural programs, says she hopes the tour inspires the men to embrace their cultural roots. “We firmly believe that when you have knowledge of self, you have the foundation on which to stand and to grow. You have something to offer the world and know where you came from. If you don’t have that, you leave yourself open and vulnerable for others to imprint who they say you are.”

At the next stop, an office of People’s Health Centers, the medical director, Dr. Michael O’Connor, and others urged the men to get in the habit of taking better care of themselves through routine checkups and screening for problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

The young men seemed pleased to learn about the possibility that health insurance might be within their reach through such clinics. They also seemed inspired by words from Jason Parker and others during the next stop, a 45-minute session about the African American Male Initiative at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.  Parker is campus coordinator of the initiative.

He tells the tour that college is a challenge for some male students. “It’s not that they can’t handle the work. They just have so much on their plates outside of school. And a lot of time they lack a support system.”

The college created the initiative, he says, to help these young people “ease the pain, so to speak,” and make them successful by offering intense tutoring, older student mentors and an academic alert system to track the student.

Being successful in college, he tells the visitors “means being proactive rather than reactive. Let me hear you say ‘proactive.’ “

“Proactive!” the men shout back.

In the context of the college’s initiative, he says the term means taking more responsibility for what happens in their live so that they don’t end up falling farther behind academically. “We want to make sure you are on the right track.”

Following stops at New Life Evangelistic Center and later, the Father’s Support Center, the tour bus headed for the Ronald Jones Funeral Chapels.

Jones is dressed in a comfortable loose fitting casual shirt and pants, expensive-looking rings covering some of his fingers and a diamond studded watch on his wrist. He doesn’t immediately strike visitors as a funeral director. But on this day, before the tour bus arrives, a TV stereotype of a mortician comes to mind because Jones shows up eating a sandwich. As he chews, he explains that he has been so busy since last night working on bodies that this – he nods to the sandwich – was both his breakfast and lunch. After washing it down with a can of Coke, he talks about how fate causes so many young people to end up under his care.

And contrary to what the public reads and sees in the media, he says many of  the young people who end up dead or in prison aren’t really violent criminals.

“They’re victims, really,” he says, citing an example of one young man who got into a vehicle with two strangers because he wanted to go for a ride. What he didn’t know, Jones says, was that an AK-47 was on the floor between the feet of one of the men and that they were on their way to a drive-by shooting. The shooter ended up killing the wrong person, in addition to shooting several other people, Jones says. The young man who got in the car for a joy ride was the only one who was caught. Neighborhood residents could not recognize the other two. Unlike the young man whose face was visible, the other two concealed their faces under hoods.

Jones says the incident also touched him because the young man who was identified obviously had potential because he had won plenty of scholarships and was headed for college. “He kept insisting he had done nothing wrong, not realizing that he was culpable because he was in the car. They don’t understand that decisions that they make have a profound effect on their future.”

In another case, Jones says a youngster got into a vehicle that the driver said belonged to an uncle. The car turned out to have been stolen. “They didn’t go any farther than from here to the parking lot across the street when the kid who was driving panicked, hit the gas and hit the curb. The innocent young man ended up being thrown from the car, which rolled over and killed him.”

Jones says he reaches out to young men like those on Thursday’s tour because “somebody saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I used to think that people were meddling, but they turned out to be people who cared. If I can help just one, it can make a difference. I know it’s like carrying one bucket of sand at a time. But sooner or later you have a beach.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.