The price of giving back
A nonprofit waits for a promise from the state
In the corner of a half-empty 1970s strip mall, a volunteer named Columbus John-Baptiste stands over his wards, directing them in the ways of computer repair. A young woman who, as of a few weeks ago, knew nothing about computers is keying commands into a half-built CPU. A young man tinkers with a damaged hard drive and an ancient motherboard. John-Baptiste calls the group of 30 teenagers his "guinea pigs" — youths willing to commit to a summer experiment that, fingers crossed, will extend year round.
Once the teens finish rebuilding a dozen or so machines, they'll move on to other tasks, at the restaurant next door. Starting in August, they'll cook, clean, wait tables and man the registers. That is, if IOG Youth Vocational Center can stay open that long.
William Gary, founder of the 6-month-old center, is hoping the state Department of Juvenile Justice will notice the small niche his program is designed to fill: offering life lessons and job training to children who are delinquent but not yet dangerous. Gary hopes to grow the program by about 50 more children, to replace the summer batch, who arrived by word of mouth.
"We want to catch these kids when they first start their travels down the wrong road," he says. "There's just nothing here in Georgia that we know of that's like this."
Gary and his wife, along with a half-dozen volunteers, have relied on devotion and a sense of mission to keep their cause afloat. But running a nonprofit business takes more than optimism. Without funding, IOG can't last much longer. Since February, the center has survived on donations from churches and local businesses. If the center does go under, Gary claims he'll lose his house, too; he put it up as collateral to finance the $42,000 start-up fee.
The center also needs an influx of disadvantaged children. Those children aren't in short supply. But the guardian of the greatest number of them — the state Department of Juvenile Justice — has yet to contract with IOG. That contract could make or break the fledging business.
Gary says Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez was enthusiastic about sending troubled children to IOG when the two men met earlier this year. According to Gary, a contract with the state would solve about half of IOG's money woes.
Department spokeswoman Jaci Vickers says a contract is "under review." Martinez was not available for comment. "What we try to do all the time is assess what the needs of the children are," Vickers says.
According to Vickers, the majority of troubled children who pass through the department live at home rather than detention centers and might benefit from a daytime program like IOG's. Yet it's too soon to say whether the center will meet the department's standards for a rehabilitative facility, and it's questionable that IOG is equipped to satisfy the state's academic requirements.
Gary, however, doesn't envision his program as one for school kids. He's seeking dropouts. "Our goal is to get them a job," he says. It's an idea Gary, who earns his living as a computer technician, birthed after teaching his skills to a teenager at his church; he says the teen grew up to become a computer technician.
Gary also says the concept of IOG (which stands for Israel of God, although he says the center has no religious affiliation) came to him from his own childhood experience. Having grown up in the Bronx, Gary credits vocational centers with keeping him clean and focused from a young age.
IOG might therefore fill a niche the juvenile justice department needs for minor criminal offenders who won't return to school.
"What we're looking for, principally, are alternatives to detention, settings other than institutions," Vickers says. "We're currently doing some of that. But that's not to say we don't need to work with some other venues in other ways."
Quinnecia Shealey, an eleventh-grader at Crim High School in Kirkwood, has traded her summer vacation to spend six hours a day at IOG. "There was nothing else to do but sit at home," she says. "I might as well make use of my time."
She says she likes the individual attention IOG showers on her. She says the program has encouraged her to pursue an education and "be something I enjoy being."
"At school, they listen. But they don't really listen," she says. "Here, this makes me want to change for the better. Everything is about us. They do it for us."