'Somebody's On My Side': 3 Men Who Escaped Poverty Help Others Find A Way Out | KGOU
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'Somebody's On My Side': 3 Men Who Escaped Poverty Help Others Find A Way Out

Dec 28, 2019
Originally published on December 28, 2019 1:12 pm

Paul Collins-Hackett sits in Albany's Youth Opportunity Office trying to guide a teenage boy through the ins and outs of getting a job.

"This is the part that I don't shut up about," he instructs the young man. "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you might as well not show up."

The young man nods his head in agreement. Collins-Hackett is a little like a big brother — encouraging but direct.

When the teen mentions why he wants the job — to help his mother pay her bills so "we're not getting kicked out of houses all the time and moving around a lot" — Collins-Hackett leans in even closer.

"I completely respect that struggle," he tells the teen. "My father passed away when I was 3 and my mother's blind. So I've always been superpoor and having to help out with bills and stuff like that. So the fact that you have all those people that you're helping and you're just rising to the occasion? Go, brother. However I can help, let me know, please."

Jonathan Jones is Albany's commissioner of recreation, youth and workforce services. He credits his single mother's persistence for pushing him to take advantage of every available academic opportunity and getting him to where he is today.
Richard Beaven for NPR

A recent study found that teens growing up in Albany's poorest neighborhoods face some of the toughest conditions in the country: crime, inadequate housing, missing parents.

So several adults — people, such as Collins-Hackett, who work for the city and nonprofits in the area — have been using what they learned from their own struggles growing up to help these kids survive and, hopefully, thrive. These efforts by individuals can sometimes have an outsized impact in that fight against poverty.

Collins-Hackett's boss, Jonathan Jones, is another one of these mentors. He credits his single mother's persistence for getting him where he is today: the city's commissioner of recreation, youth and workforce services.

"I've been part of every government program you can think of," he says, adding that his mother pushed him to take advantage of every academic opportunity he could.

Now, Jones points to a mural on the wall of the office he runs. It was painted by a teen whom he mentored, a 17-year-old gang member.

"This is him walking up his steps in order to become me, or a person in a suit," Jones says.

The mural depicts a young man — his pants hanging below his bottom — leaving behind a gun, a knife and a needle, and heading up the stairs toward a man with his arm extended. At the top, the word "success" is painted in bright orange, surrounded by pictures of a house, a car, a diploma and symbols for the phrase "peace of mind."

Does Jones know where the young man is now?

"Nobody knows," he says, but he's not too bothered by that. " 'Cause I know I had an impact. He won't forget this," says Jones, adding that you have to do what you can and hope for the best.

A mural at the Albany Youth Opportunity Office created by a former gang member shows paths to success.
Richard Beaven for NPR

Research shows there are many factors that can help break the cycle of poverty: good schools, access to health care, safer neighborhoods. But there's no magic solution. Sometimes, it's just a combination of things or an encounter with the right person or having the experience.

While Jones had a strong mother pushing him along, Justin Gaddy had very little adult supervision growing up.

"I was really deep into violence, you know, that was my thing," he says from his office a few blocks away from Jones' office. Gaddy got so deep into gangs and guns that in his late teens, he was convicted on federal racketeering charges and faced the possibility of life in prison.

But he got a lucky break. When he was sentenced, he got only six years.

"That made me think, somebody's on my side," Gaddy says. It was just the nudge he needed to start turning his life around. Now, years later, he's an outreach worker for an anti-violence group called SNUG, which stands for Should Never Use Guns. Gaddy tries to stop neighborhood teens from making the same mistakes he did.

In Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood, red signs posted by the fire department on boarded-up homes indicate that there is potential the buildings could collapse.
Richard Beaven for NPR

Like Collins-Hackett and Jones, Gaddy thinks it's crucial that the kids he deals with recognize that he knows exactly what they're going through.

"Like I went through the same thing," he says. "I say, 'Look at me now.' I would have never thought I'd be where I'm at right now. I got here by taking this route, and this is how we can help you."

In SNUG's case, this means redirecting them from the streets into sports, jobs and other activities.

All three men realize they can't help everyone. But they know from their own experiences that those kids they do help might someday succeed and inspire somebody else.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

NPR's Pam Fessler has reported on efforts to fight poverty in the U.S. for over a decade. Along the way, she's seen how sometimes a single person can have the most impact. On a recent trip to Albany, N.Y., she met three men who grew up in poverty and are now trying to help others get out. She has this reporter's notebook.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Paul Collins-Hackett sits in Albany's Youth Opportunity Office trying to guide a teenage boy through the ins and outs of getting a job.

PAUL COLLINS-HACKETT: If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you might as well not show up.

FESSLER: He's like a big brother - encouraging, but direct. When the young man tells Collins-Hackett that he wants the job to help his mother...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So I can help her pay bills and stuff so that we're not getting kicked out of houses all the times and moving around a lot.

FESSLER: ...Collins-Hackett leans in even closer.

COLLINS-HACKETT: I completely respect that struggle. My father passed away when I was 3. And my mother's blind. So I've always been super poor and having to help out with bills and stuff like that. So the fact that you have all those people that you're helping and you're just rising to the occasion, good brother. However I can help, let me know, please.

FESSLER: And so it goes in Albany's poorest neighborhoods, where a recent study found that teens face some of the toughest conditions in the country - crime, inadequate housing, missing parents. Several people who grew up in similar circumstances are now working with the city and nonprofits to help these kids survive and hopefully thrive.

JONATHAN JONES: I've been a part of every government program you can think of.

FESSLER: Collins-Hackett's boss Jonathan Jones credits his single mother's persistence for getting him where he is today. The city's commissioner of Recreation, Youth and Workforce Services, Jones says she pushed him to take advantage of every academic opportunity. Now on the wall of the office that Jones runs is a mural painted by one of the teens he mentored, a 17-year-old gang member.

JONES: Yeah. This is him walking off the steps in order to become me or a person in a suit.

FESSLER: The mural shows a young man - his pants hanging below his bottom - leaving behind a gun, a knife and a needle and heading up towards a man with his arm extended.

JONES: And this is the things that he sees as success.

FESSLER: There are pictures of a house, a car, a diploma and symbols for peace of mind.

So where is he now?

JONES: Nobody knows.

FESSLER: Doesn't that bother him, I ask.

JONES: No, because I know I had an impact. He won't forget this.

FESSLER: Jones says you have to do what you can and hope for the best. Research shows that there are many factors that can help break the cycle of poverty - good schools, access to health care, safer neighborhoods. But there's no magic bullet. Sometimes, it's a combination of things or an encounter with the right person or experience.

JUSTIN GADDY: I was really deep into violence. You know, that was my thing.

FESSLER: Justin Gaddy has an office a few blocks from Jones'. He had very little supervision growing up and got so deep into gangs and guns that in his late teens, he was convicted on federal racketeering charges. He faced the possibility of life in prison.

GADDY: When I actually got sentenced, I didn't get the time I was supposed to get.

FESSLER: Instead, he got only six years.

GADDY: That made me think, like, damn, somebody's on my side.

FESSLER: Just the lucky break he needed to start thinking about turning his life around. Now, years later, he's an outreach worker trying to stop other teens from falling into gang life. Like Collins-Hackett and Jones, Gaddy thinks it's crucial that the kids he deals with recognize that he knows exactly what they're up against.

GADDY: Like, I went through the same thing. I said, look at me now. I would have never thought I'd be where I'm at right now. And I got here by taking this route. And I'm like, and this is how we can help you.

FESSLER: Which, in his case, is redirecting them from the streets into sports, jobs and other activities. All three of these men know they can't help everyone, but they realize from their own experiences that those they do reach might someday succeed and inspire somebody else. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Albany, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.