In a school library filled with 30 African-American boys at Yeatman-Liddell Preparatory Middle School, not a single pair of eyes strayed from James Clark, a VP at Better Family Life Inc. and veteran crime-prevention advocate.
Every boy was completely silent as they listened to Clark on Tuesday afternoon.
“Under no circumstances do you drop out of high school,” said Clark, who was dressed in a pinstripe suit and blue silk tie. “Under no circumstances do you not go have that one more graduation. Because you’re going to need to earn money. And the best way to earn your money is through education.”
Every week, Clark meets with this group, as well as one at Stevens Middle School, as part of Better Family Life’s Perspectives program, which launched in the fall.
Clark and a loyal group of volunteers have been hitting the pavement for three years with the Put Down the Pistol Campaign. Just this year, Better Family Life received phone calls from more than 50 individuals on the brink of committing an armed robbery or a violent act with a gun, Clark said. They prevented the crimes by offering the individuals resources and a community to fall back on.
However, Clark knew that the program needed to start catching at-risk youth before they get involved in crime. So when staff at Yeatman and Stevens middle schools asked him to be a guest speaker to their at-risk boys one time, Clark said, “No.” He told them he wanted to work with these young men year-round. The schools’ leaders were ecstatic.
“We plan to take them to Washington University’s campus and other higher-education opportunities,” Clark said. “But we also will take them to the St. Louis City Workhouse. We also will invite blue-collar and white-collar workers.”
Several of the Yeatman students said that the program has already made them adjust their step. One sixth-grader we’ll call Chris (St. Louis Public Schools asked that students not be identified by name) said before Clark came to the school, he and his cousin were acting up in class.
“When Mr. Clark came, we started doing our work,” Chris said. “We started keeping money in our pockets by doing the right thing and our chores, not being put out of class, not talking back to the teacher.”
His 18-year-old brother is in jail. Several other boys said their older brothers were also in jail.
“He taught us that if we keep acting up and get put out of school, then we could end up in the penitentiary,” Chris said of Clark, “because there are only two options in life if you’re on the streets – the penitentiary and the graveyard.”
At the Tuesday weekly session at Yeatman, Clark brought in three young men who confirmed that lesson. When Clark first met Kenneth McClain, 23, McClain had no shirt on, a pistol on his belt and drugs in his pockets.
“He grew up in a neighborhood where that’s what went on,” Clark said. “We got him in school, and now Ken is a college graduate from Forest Park Community College – and he’s on the Dean’s List.”
McClain said his family members were gang bangers growing up. With the help of Better Family Life, he started getting on the right path. Now he dedicates his Saturday mornings to working the streets for the Put Down the Pistol campaign.
“When I met them, I met new role models – people I could really look up to, not people to throw me a gun,” McClain said. “I found out I really did love my community, versus when I was shooting at people, versus when I was selling dope.”
Robert Moten, 23, showed the students the ankle bracelet that ties him to house arrest.
“As you get older, you’ll start to see that there isn’t anything out on the streets, so you might as well stay in school,” Moten said. “All the (gang) colors don’t mean nothing. You can have on blue, but if your pockets are empty then what’s the point of you having on blue or red?”
Clark said he also works closely with the group’s parents and families to provide them with resources. The Put Down the Pistol program operates under a neighborhood alliance of 64 organizations that make up the St. Louis Mobilization Initiative, a resource network for citizens of targeted neighborhoods.
Recently, St. Louis police started practicing “hot-spot policing” to target crime. “We support the hot-spot philosophy,” Clark said, “but we also have to do hot-spot resources. For every police hot spot, we have to go in those areas and help people find jobs.”
For more information about the Put Down the Pistol program, call 314-381-8200 or come to the weekly Saturday meetings at 10 a.m. at the Community Outreach Center at 6017 Natural Bridge Ave.