Regardless of your situation, criminal activity is not the answer. You have skills. Stay in school and learn to capitalize on them.
That was the message delivered to dozens of teenage boys during the sixth annual “Developing Every Man’s Opportunity” – or DEMO – conference and fundraiser held Saturday afternoon at the Boys & Girls Club, near 21st and Hillside in Wichita.
The conference was presented by the Do You Want to Live or Die? gang-prevention and mentoring program of Rise Up for Youth, a nonprofit that seeks to empower and educate local teens. The event drew 86 boys ranging in age from 14 to 18, program founder David Gilkey said.
Many are at risk of joining gangs or falling into other criminal activity, he said. Others are trying to cope with or mend broken relationships with the men in their lives.
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“Hopefully this will give them insight – hey, all it takes is one wrong decision in their lives and they’re going to prison,” Gilkey said.
“Across the country a lot of our young men are growing up without fathers, a lot of them don’t have mentors … a lot are dying in the streets, (or) getting locked up as young men,” he said. “We’re trying to change that.”
The afternoon was packed with three hours of discussion urging the teens to seek mentors, network with men in the community, finish high school and pursue a college degree.
There also was talk of jail and prison.
During his keynote address, author and motivational speaker Lamont Carey asked the group of boys how many were immersed in “street life.” Roughly a third raised their hands.
Another third acknowledged seeing drugs sold in their neighborhoods. Asked whether a drug dealer ever had recruited them to keep an eye on his “stash” or to play lookout for the police, a few more lifted their palms.
Carey, who spent 11 years in an East Coast prison, said the same scenario drew him into drug dealing when he was a young teen. Angered by the abuse he witnessed his father dole out to his mother – and her unwillingness to leave – he began bullying and fighting, which “opened the street to me,” he said.
Before long, he kept company with drug dealers who would pay a few dollars for his help.
At 13, he owned a car. At 14, he had an apartment and eventually got a gun. A school dropout, he planned to be “a kingpin drug dealer,” he said.
But by 15 Carey was on probation for attempted murder.
And a year later, he was on a bus headed to prison – convicted again of attempted murder and other felony crimes at the age of 16.
“When you agreed to tell them when the police was coming, you could have been arrested for distributing whatever the drug was. That could have put you right in the penitentiary. … It’s just that easy, just that simple,” Carey told the teens. He described prison pat-downs, humiliating strip searches and years devoid of a friendly phone call or letters.
“You think street life is the way to go, then I guarantee you’ll have the same experiences I had,” Carey said.
“There is nothing beautiful about being in the streets. There is nothing sexy about being in prison.”
Carey urged the teens to instead turn to legitimate extracurricular enterprises, like lawn mowing and car washing. “You have skills and talents,” he said.
Carey said he took up writing and earned his GED while incarcerated. Today he is the author of several books and screenplays, is a filmmaker, casting agent and poet, and has appeared in such television shows as the HBO crime series “The Wire.” He is based out of Washington, D.C.
“Grass is growing. Cars are getting dirty. … Those are ways that you can put some money in your pocket,” he said.
“It’s in your best interest to not to follow the crowd but to stand out from the crowd.”
The Do You Want to Live or Die? mentoring program is active in four Wichita high schools – East, North, Southeast and West – and Brooks Middle School. It’s open to teen boys up to age 18 and offers activities, such as college campus visits, to members. Forty-two teens currently are in the program.
Boys interested in joining can contact their school counselors or call David Gilkey at 316-312-5705.
Teens enrolled in other schools can join by contacting Gilkey directly.