Cafe helps former gang members change their lives

08/13/2010 12:00 AM

08/16/2010 9:32 AM

The 17-year-old looked like any who might be standing behind the counter of a diner, taking a deep breath after the lunch rush.

Except he was working at City Life, a new cafe that helps street gang members in Wichita find life after crime. He was serving probation for aggravated burglary and aggravated battery, juvenile court records showed.

City Life Cafe, 2111 E. Central, is one of two programs run through Youth for Christ by two pastors at Tabernacle Bible Church.

"All of them have had gang affiliations," said Roosevelt "Buck" DeShazer Sr., one of the organizers. "But they're trying to turn their lives around. When they come to us, they're on probation, so they know if they mess up, they're going to jail."

DeShazer and Dale McMullen said they encourage the youths to go back to school, or obtain their GEDs. Then through the City Life Cafe or through the Yard Guys work program, they get paid and gain work experience they can put on applications that may help them get jobs with established businesses.

Yard Guys hire out to perform mowing or other household chores.

They're all about mending fences.

"We're showing them they can make honest money from honest work," DeShazer said.

The program began last November. Because it has been operating less than a year, county officials say they don't know how well it's working.

But it's based on a program that's been successful in Los Angeles: Homeboy Industries, which operates under the slogan "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job."

"It is one of the longest-standing and most successful gang initiative programs I know of," said Mark Masterson, director of the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections. "I spoke to a lot of community groups about doing something here, and Youth for Christ stepped up."

Youth for Christ had already been working in the county's juvenile justice system for 15 years, volunteering at the detention center and other programs.

City Life and the Yard Guys work program get referrals from the county's juvenile intake assessment program and probation, Masterson said.

"I am surprised at how quickly it's taken off," Masterson said.

Masterson hired the yard workers to clear some brush he cut at his house and install a fence.

"They came in on time and worked hard in the heat," he said.

At the City Life Cafe, workers wear reflective orange vests — the kind worn on street construction.

It's the colors of workers, DeShazer said.

"We're looking for donors to help buy us T-shirts, but in the meantime we have these vests," DeShazer said. "We wanted something that would show these are workers. They're not gang members."

The program started with a grant from the county's Crime Prevention Fund. It subsists on faith-based donations, money made from the cafe and services, donations and "generous tips from customers," DeShazer said.

City Life serves breakfast and barbecue for lunch, with menu prices ranging from $3 to $7.

Customers have to look for the gray building on Central just west of Grove. They're still raising money for a sign.

"When you're a nonprofit, you do what you can, when you can," McMullen said after the lunch crowd had departed earlier this week.

The workers usually stay with the program two to four months, and DeShazer said the youths have a cap of $1,000 they can earn before graduating from the program, either to return to school or look for another job.

That money helps the youths pay fines and restitution they may owe in their cases. But organizers hope it also helps them find another way of making a living.

"We'll help them go to technical school or find a way to get where they want," DeShazer said. "And we'll also help them build a resume."

The Wichita program is starting at a time when its prototype, Homeboy Industries, is struggling during the recession, the Los Angeles Times reported in May.

Masterson said he hopes the Wichita program can survive and grow.

"Youth for Christ are really committed and have a calling to serve a difficult population," Masterson said. "It's one many people would just as soon forget about."

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