Young entrepreneurs wind up back in jail Those who provided bootstraps say they haven't given up hope

April 03, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In a few short years, U'Baid Harris and Charles Spann had gone from juvenile offenders to thriving young businessmen -- celebrated at youth conferences, even presenting President Clinton with the product they made at Tico Enterprises, the Baltimore company they had helped to start.

Several months ago, they met again by chance in the last place they and those who loved them ever wanted to see them -- the Baltimore City Detention Center. Mr. Spann was facing drug charges; Mr. Harris, an alleged carjacking.

"I didn't really want to say nothing to him," Mr. Harris said in a Detention Center visiting room, recalling the encounter. "We just both shook our heads. We knew what we had to say: It was a shame for us to see each other here."

The sobering change of circumstances broke the hearts of a fiercely supportive network of counselors, teachers, friends and business people who had tried to help exceptional young men succeed.

"They had made it. I thought they had made it," said real estate developer J. Joseph Clarke, who with his wife, former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, came to view them as they would neighbors.

Of the young entrepreneurs' troubles, he said: "You couldn't have told me anything that could have made me more depressed."

In the least serious but perhaps most painful episode, another original member of the company, George Hall, was charged along with two other employees with participating in the theft of computers from Tico's offices -- costing Mr. Hall his job.

After the break-in at the office in January and the allegations of Mr. Hall's involvement, seeing all three men back in the system was too much for Ben Moore, Tico's business adviser and CEO.

"I went through anger," he said. "Then I went through a kind of pity for myself. Then the last emotion that I started feeling was responsibility. I was very, very hurt, and searching myself and saying, 'Could I have done something differently?' "

From the Detention Center, Mr. Harris, 21, brings philosophy and faith to bear. He believes bad things happen to help us achieve a more perfect state -- a sort of buffing action that, in the end, will make a life shine for its troubles.

"I think pretty much faith can be tested when times are really rough, not when times is blossoming and blooming," he said.

Some success stories

The company, which makes small wood products, has employed some 20 youths since it started. Some have succeeded wonderfully, said James P. Bond, president of the Living Classrooms Foundation, which facilitated the creation of Tico.

For example, an early vice president of the company, DeHaven Hairston, left to join the crew of two sailing vessels and has a job with a pharmaceutical company.

Mr. Bond said failures, unfortunate though they are, must be expected along the way.

"This is a very difficult population," he said. "They come with a lot of issues and a lot of challenges and a lot of baggage. It's an emotional roller coaster.

"It's like you get a punch in the stomach when you put so much in but the important thing to remember is, every one of these young men and women who have been at Tico has value and potential."

The odds were against Mr. Spann, Mr. Hall and Mr. Harris from the beginning.

All had early scrapes with the law. Mr. Harris, who has described himself as one of the "worstest" troublemakers in the juvenile system, saw his father go to prison when he was 5. Mr. Hall spent time in foster care and was arrested for drug possession.

But to those who worked with them, the three men seemed destined to rise above the past. They were articulate, bright and willing to work. They showed promise with the business. They reached out to other young men.

After graduating from Fresh Start -- a program run by Living Classrooms to help at-risk, minority youths learn skills -- Mr. Spann and several other young men founded Tico in 1992, using a grant the foundation had obtained and the help of a business adviser.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Hall came on board soon after. They chose the name for the company from a children's story about a blackbird named Tico who was born without wings.

When the Body Shop chain began to buy wooden "soap savers" from Tico, the business garnered broad attention. At a conference, Mr. Spann shook President Clinton's hand and gave him one. "There's a soap saver in the bathroom at the White House," Mr. Hall says with excitement even now.

Peggy Meadows, a counselor who worked with Mr. Spann, now 21, when he was a teen-ager, called him "a born leader." Mr. Moore called him "one of the most articulate young men I've met in my life."

Mr. Harris spoke at a corrections conference in December 1994, saying he had overcome the "instant gratification" mentality. With help from the foundation, his earnings from the company and the Islamic community, he enrolled in business classes at Sojourner-Douglass College.

Missed appointments

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