About two years ago, gang member and drug dealer Kevin Alton stopped by a Thursday evening mentoring meeting of Voices Against Violence at the Warrington Recreation Center, and asked to volunteer.
The weekly gatherings primarily attract young black males – many with a background of drugs or lacking parenting or education — who are challenged through hard-hitting, no-holds-barred rhetoric, with some humor, to turn their lives around.
"We know family structure is why most are in this situation," said Richard Carrington, founder and executive director of Voices Against Violence.
"But no excuses allowed. We're trying to save lives here," he said.
The non-profit organization, begun in 1996 and funded primarily by the Birmingham Foundation, offers mentoring, an academic-based program, summer camps, job assistance, and more to children and young adults.
About to become a father, Mr. Alton was in search of change, and anything resembling stability.
"With the street life, there is no promise you will live day to day," he said.
The prior year, his 15-year-old brother was shot and killed leaving a bar.
"I couldn't keep on that life. My world was going down," he said.
Mr. Carrington decided to allow him to volunteer at summer camp, despite reservations.
"Did he mean what he said, or was he playing me like he played the streets?" he asked himself. But when he found out Mr. Alton was working — and after he passed a drug test — Mr. Carrington hired him.
The following summer, Mr. Alton's mother died.
When school is in session, Mr. Alton, 30, mentors in the academic-based program of Voices Against Violence, which operates school days at Carrick and Brashear high schools with paid personnel and volunteers. Freshmen are monitored for grades and behavior.
Sophomores, juniors, and seniors receive a $100 monthly stipend, for which they participate in mentoring, leadership classes, and community service.
About 98.9 percent of program students go on to college or secondary education.
"The world became a bigger place, and they learned they are fighting with kids from around the world to get jobs," he said.
On Mondays after school at Carrick High School, leadership classes are held for 30 to 40 young women from Carrick and Brashear. The program is a collaboration of Voices Against Violence and the North Side Alliance.
The same classes are held for young men on Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays, mentoring for students the courts have assigned community service takes place in collaboration with the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center.
The students are also assigned duties, such as shoveling snow for seniors.
On Thursdays, the sessions in the Warrington Recreation Center are largely about trade mentoring or, as Mr. Carrington says, "finding out who you are and going after it."
The meetings begin at 6 p.m. All youth, ages 17 to 30, are invited, although most are former/current gang members or drop-outs. Snacks and refreshments are followed by an opening prayer.
At a late April meeting, attendees included a teenage couple who are parents of a 10-month-old child. She is a tenth grade dropout, and he is a third grade dropout. Both planned to start GED training this month.
"You put your feet on the ground and take one step, and then another, and that's how we survive," said Mr. Carrington, who conducts the meetings.
A disabled Army Military Intelligence veteran from the Iraq War and other conflicts, he receives no payment for his work with Voices Against Violence.
He is assisted Thursdays by volunteers Jill Evans, who handles the administrative tasks, and Firdausi Bey, a retired 30-year boilermaker who contributes his knowledge and experience of the trades.
"The first things all trades require is a driver's license, GED, and to be drug free.
"We mentor them so can go in the direction they want to go," he said. The education includes detailing the path to becoming a skilled tradesman.
Mr. Bey, whose father was also a boilermaker, discusses union history; how corporate heads waged war against labor; and why unions became necessary.
He also talks about inspirational figures, like West Virginia-born Martin Delany, whose father was a slave, but who became a physician, writer, and first African-American field officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
"I want to give them people from history that they can get a grip on and build a sense of pride and self," he said.
Those with job interviews but no income or transportation receive weekly bus passes.
Addressing all the youngsters, many of whom are single parents, Mr. Carrington said if they put $25 a month in the bank for a three-year-old daughter, the child will have $4,500 for college. If $100, she will have $18,000.
"How can you be responsible for your daughter if you are not responsible for yourself?" he asked.
A young man told his side of the story about hitting into the rear of a police car. He now faces a court date.
"In his mind this was a small nothing. But he's in the adult world, and you can't get away anymore with answers like, `I don't know' or ‘I didn't do it.'
"You have to man yourself up," said Mr. Carrington.
Another attendee was a teen requesting help attaining his first driver's license; no one in his family has a car on which he can learn to drive.
"The needs are different. We have to address all the needs of the individual," he said.
Another attendee who began in summer camp is now in a trades apprentice program.
"Some have only the motivation to be better," said Mr. Carrington.
Among that group is Mr. Alton, who will again be working at the free summer camp in Upper McKinley Park which runs from June 27 to Aug. 19.
Its structured program includes gym training; math and reading instruction; swimming at Moore Park; field trips to the zoo and Kennywood; and a focus on hygiene and etiquette.
Mr. Alton can also add being president of the Beltzhoover Youth Athletic Association to his resume. The football league for ages 5 to 14 is accepting signups until all teams are full.
"I've done enough damage to my community. Now I want to help my community," he said.