As the sun begins to set Tuesday, the Hathaway Center in southeast Oklahoma City begins to fill with youth.
The sign above the door still bears an Oklahoma City emblem, but the center at 3916 S Lindsay, was closed in 2010 when budgets were slashed. It was renovated and reopened last spring as the second site for the police department's Family Awareness and Community Teamwork unit.
The doors are opened to at-risk youth who have been recruited into the program. A weekly event, typically a movie night, is offered Monday in northeast Oklahoma City and Tuesday at the southeast site.
The building is old, but nearly everything inside is new. The walls have been painted and the restrooms overhauled. The furniture is new and a bank of computers with flat-panel monitors line the back wall in one of the rooms. Shelves filled with donated books line a wall in a converted office. The sign atop the bookshelf designates the room as the Paco Balderrama National Memorial Library, a sly joke and small tribute to the lieutenant, who serves as the program supervisor.
Adolescents mill about the center, clustered around computers laughing at YouTube videos or playing games. Others trade stories and gossip. The smell of hot pizza is in the air, and more than a few mention dinner.
In the gym, basketballs are flying on both ends of the full court. There are no teams, but a cluster shooting hoops. A player in a pink Polo shirt, jeans and boots sinks several baskets in a row from half court. Unless face-to-face, the pistol and badge strapped to his belt aren't noticeable.
The player is Sgt. Jermaine Johnson, one of the unit's three gang intervention officers. Meanwhile, in the small kitchenette, Master Sgt. Teresa Sterling, another gang intervention officer, is divvying up 10 pizzas and filling plastic cups with ice and soda.
Behind a closed office door, Sgt. Wayland Cubit, or “Cube,” is staging an intervention with Aries Johnson. Johnson, 13, was grounded last week by his mother, unable to attend the program, and Cubit wants to know why.
Johnson calmly explains the incident the previous week at school, an incident with a substitute teacher frustrated by a classroom full of unruly students. Johnson fired back with a line that landed him in the principal's office.
He doesn't try to excuse his behavior or to divert fault or blame.
“As a leader, sometimes you have to take a blow. Not abuse, but a blow,” Cubit said.
Johnson agrees. After discussing a few other issues in his life, he is allowed to rejoin his friends.
Johnson is fairly new to the program, Cubit said, but was in the early stages of gang involvement. Officers staged an intervention at his school four or five months ago, he said.
“They came to our school to talk about gangs and I happened to stand out,” Johnson said.
“After I joined the program, I'm on a straight path. If I'm looking for a scholarship, I can't be getting in trouble,” he said.
He's having a little difficulty juggling athletics and academics, but is working hard to balance them.
“I'm on the right path. I'm not the best, but I'm doing good,” Johnson said.
His eyes were opened recently when an acquaintance was gunned down outside a convenience store near his home.
“The day before he died, I was with him. He wasn't my friend, but I was with him. What if I was with him that night? I don't want them to be wearing T-shirts with my face on them,” Johnson said.
“I'm not trying to be headed to my grave early. I'm trying to live my life,” he said.
“We know each of these kids' situations. We know exactly what's going on in their lives,” said Sgt. Fernando Hernandez, the unit's third gang intervention officer.
Defusing conflict and instilling both discipline and leadership qualities are at the core of the FACT program.
“We show them respect before they show it to us. We can reprimand them and they don't hold grudges against us. I think it's due to the fact that we show them respect right off the bat,” Hernandez said.
“These kids really want some kind of structure,” said Hernandez, known to most of the kids as “Freddy,” a nickname he got when he was fresh out of the police academy and that has stuck for more than a decade.
Involvement in the program is a privilege and these kids aren't coddled. FACT is not about rehabilitating known gang members, but rather getting to those who show promise and for whom it isn't too late.
“We tell the kids, if we didn't see potential in you, we wouldn't have sent a mentor after you,” Hernandez said.
By the time dinner is served, more than two dozen youth have arrived, as well as several volunteers, including Crystal Perkins-Carter, the author of 22 books and plays. She is the wife of an Oklahoma City police sergeant.
Perkins-Carter wrote a short play for the program called “My Father Didn't Care, So Why Should I?” She spent several weeks working with four kids from the FACT program and community actors. The play addressed issues the youth may face in their own lives, including bullying and domestic violence.
The audience eats it up. There's not a glazed eye or a finger on a cellphone during the performance. Afterward, Cubit invites some of them to the front to role play and practice how they'd react if they found themselves in the characters' shoes.
“These kids, they've never acted before so they're trying something new. We challenge these kids. We don't push them, but we challenge them,” Hernandez said.
“I think it's a great opportunity to shape and mold lives, and I think exposure to different opportunities can be beneficial,” said Perkins-Carter, who plans to develop acting skills in those in the program who are interested.
“We try to get these kids into doing arts that they might not be introduced to in school, and to leave the video games alone for a little bit and learn something new,” Hernandez said.
Foundation of billiards
Tuesday's meeting ends with dessert. Devante Clark celebrated his 18th birthday Feb. 18. He has been involved with the FACT program since the beginning of his sophomore year.
“I'm not a bad kid. My only problem is I'm a little stubborn, and I had some problems with my mom,” Clark said.
Clark said his affinity for Cubit is built on a foundation of billiards.
“He taught me how to play pool. That's what
Clark's talent is art. He helped paint the mural that covers an entire wall inside the Hathaway Center.
“I put it up there. I thought it would be kind of nice. It's a big, empty wall. I thought, ‘What can I do with it?'
“I always carry around computer paper and a pencil,” he said.
Clark, a senior at Douglass High School, is considering pursuing a graphic design degree at the University of Central Oklahoma in the fall.
“Some people come through here to get their share and then they get ghost. Some people just can't stick to it. They don't see what it can do for them,” he said.
“I joined just to see what it was about, and now I'm on the way to being a mentor,” Clark said.
After the kids get their share of cake, they start to filter out. Some of them will be back next week. Some won't.
“A lot of these kids, they'll call us up. They like coming. Is it the pizza? I don't know. But they like coming,” Hernandez said.
“After I joined the program, I'm on a straight path. If I'm looking for a scholarship, I can't be getting in trouble.”
Aries Johnson, 13