Adult mentor Keith Babb looks on as youths play a game of pick-up football. A group of local professional black men mentor the kids, who are from troubled neighborhoods, and show them there is a better way and help them to get on a productive path in life.
TAMPA - While the country raged about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, it seemed no one was paying attention to what was happening in Chicago.
On the same weekend jurors delivered their verdict in Orlando, five people were killed and 16 were wounded - most of them in their 20s - in a part of the city that is becoming synonymous with violence. Marchers' pleas for peace on Chicago's South Side, led by a local priest and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, went unheeded.
I grew up north of Detroit, another city torn apart by racial unrest, gang shootings and drug deals gone bad. I will never forget the riots in the summer of '67.
The noise is louder now, with cable TV commentators and Facebook commenters assigning blame and dredging up old biases. Everyone has an answer, but nothing really changes.
Let me introduce you to Keith Babb III, who doesn't waste his time pointing fingers. He is determined to be a change agent in Tampa.
One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet ordinary people in our community doing extraordinary things. Keith, 29, certainly fits that description.
He's doing his part in reversing what is so destructive in our society. Even if it's just a small step, it's in the right direction.
Keith could have gone in the wrong direction.
Raised in Pahokee, a poor rural community outside of West Palm Beach, he started running with the wrong crowd after his father dropped out of his life. He did stupid things, including vandalizing a cop car when he was 13. Even getting a football scholarship to Nebraska didn't help. After his first semester, his girlfriend called and said she was pregnant. Determined not to be an absent father, he dropped out of school and came back to Florida to work a menial job to support the baby.
Three years later, a paternity test determined the child wasn't his. He directed his anger at all women, sleeping around and evolving into a "not so nice guy," as he describes it. He decided to return to school and came to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida.
Life turned around for Keith. He rediscovered the Christian faith instilled in him as a child by his devout grandmother. Then he met Sarina at a Wendy's in 2006, and married her two years later. He got his bachelor's degree in social work and a master's degree in public administration.
Keith has that inner something so necessary to tackle what seems to be an impossible task.
By day, Keith earns a paycheck working as the teen outreach program coordinator for the Wyman Center. But it's what he does on weekends that deserves the most kudos.
He's the founder and director of 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E. Center 4 Boyz, a nonprofit faith-based juvenile delinquency and diversion program for at-risk kids. He and his fellow volunteers work with youth sent to them by the court or concerned educators, providing mentoring, character development, community service and extracurricular activities.
They lead roundtable discussions on some of the mistakes they made in their own lives and how to make better choices. They teach about the importance of good manners and setting goals. They organize competitive games that demonstrate good sportsmanship. They have pizza parties, visit college campuses so the boys can envision a future there and they participate in clean-up initiatives in the neighborhood.
Most important, the adults listen and give feedback. Some of these kids have few, if any, adult males providing that kind of attention.
And they do it every Saturday in five-week sessions. For no pay. This is strictly a volunteer effort.
Keith doesn't have a facility, a "center," as the name of his organization implies. One day, maybe. For now, "we go from pillar to post," he says and laughs. "We're always on the move. It's not an ideal situation, but we make do."
What's the motivation? In his day job, Keith deals with youth - and I'm borrowing the language right from Wyman's own description - "living in low-resource environments and whose circumstances create risk of lower life opportunities." His goal is to redirect them to lead successful lives and build strong communities.
All of that is a good thing. But Keith wanted to do more. He wanted to build relationships with troubled kids that went beyond a scripted plan. Something looser, something on a more casual basis that would be meaningful.
And something that would avoid what is happening in cities like Chicago.
So Keith developed 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E. and launched it in 2010 in Sulphur Springs, one of Tampa's most impoverished areas. He found like-minded volunteers - at his church, in the community and at the University of South Florida - whose own lives could serve as a role model for at-risk youth. As the program gained momentum, he made a proposal to his contacts at the juvenile courts. His experience, reputation and passion were in his favor. The powers that be agreed to give it a try.
They had one request. Keith wanted to work with teens. But that's not what they had in mind.
"We needed more help with our younger kids," says Monica Martinez, supervisor of the Juvenile Court Diversion Program. "You start early, and maybe they won't end up in the system as teens."
She refers kids ages 9 to 12 to Keith's program because of the early intervention it offers. "They're getting positive reinforcement from an adult outside the home," she says. "It shows the kids there are people in the community who care about them, who will encourage them to stay in school and make the right decisions. That is so crucial. You can't take that attention for granted."
Rhonda Ervin of Ybor City is already seeing changes in the behavior of her 11-year-old son, Randall, who just completed a five-week session.
One of his teachers at Community Charter School of Excellence recommended that Randall take part in the program - not because he had gotten into trouble with the law or at school, but because he was on the cusp.
"He had a flip mouth," Rhonda Ervin says. "An attitude problem, you know what I mean? She felt he could benefit from some one-on-one attention from an older male with a positive influence. I was willing to try anything," she says.
Now her son is helping with the dishes. He's opening doors for his mom. He's addressing her as "ma'am" and not sassing back. He's talking about getting good grades in school so he can eventually go to college.
I asked Randall how the 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E. volunteers are making a difference in his life.
"They're teaching me how to be a gentleman," he says, looking me directly in the eye. "I'm a better person now. I don't want to end up a ghetto kid."
There's no telling if these small steps will turn into significant strides. But it's a start.
On Aug. 17, Keith and his fellow mentors will host "A G.R.O.W.N Man's School Survival Guide," a day for program participants and their parents. They'll get backpacks and back-to-school supplies to encourage academic success for the coming year and several workshops. The acronym stands for principles dear to Keith's own heart: Grounded in values, redefined by your inside, owning your actions, willing to be selfless and navigated by your purpose.
For the long-term, he's directing his passion into creating a 5,000-square-foot permanent home for the program. He needs supporters and benefactors to share his vision of changing lives before hatred and anger take root. Before the kids end up in prison, or worse, dead on the streets. From his own experience, Keith knows it is possible to turn things around.
"I've had my second chance. And every day, I thank God for it," he says. "So now it's my purpose to do for others." To learn how you can help, visit www.2ndchance4boyz.org or call (561) 202-5230.