Tragedy served as a catalyst for change

July 01, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Glynnis Gladden, who works for a Northwest Baltimore organization called STRIVE (Support Training Results In Valuable Employees) told Jerrod Hamlett's family and friends last Sunday night that his death wasn't in vain.

Hamlett was murdered last year at the Oswego Mall Apartments by a then-13-year-old boy with a juvenile record who was reputed to have ties to a violent drug gang known as "Cutthroat." Gladden said that at least one positive development has come about in the wake of Hamlett's death: STRIVE now has a program in the neighborhood of the Oswego Mall Apartments focusing on helping residents - particularly ex-offenders - with job training, education and employment. The program is funded through an $83,000 grant.

Wayne Cooper, who runs the ex-offender program at STRIVE, had a slightly different take on the matter.

"I wouldn't say [the program] was because of [Hamlett's death], because of the way the grant process works," Cooper said yesterday. "It was part of the catalyst."

Cooper said the violence and drug dealing in the area of the Oswego Mall Apartments was so bad that if Hamlett hadn't been gunned down June 25, 2005, then someone else probably would have been the next day. And, Cooper added, most of the troublemakers weren't even from the neighborhood.

"These guys from downtown was bringing the drugs uptown," Cooper said. "And they brought the violence with them." There were drug dealers in the area of the Oswego Mall Apartments before the "downtown guys" arrived, Cooper said, but he dismissed them as small-timers. Little boys, he called them, about 18 or 19 years old who weren't prepared for the level of violence those "downtowners" could bring.

The small-timers "saw they really wasn't up to what the drug gang was about," Cooper continued. The downtown faction "ran them little boys off that corner."

Cooper's knowledge comes from years of helping ex-offenders get their lives in order. He's an ex-offender himself, who was serving hard time at the age of 16 after being convicted of robbery, assault and attempted murder (he said the last charge was reduced). He was released when he was 21.

Before his sentence to adult prison, Cooper said, he had committed a number of juvenile offenses. Though he described his mother as a proud woman who held down two jobs so she wouldn't have to go on welfare, Cooper lamented that he and his brother had no father in the home.

"What would have happened if I had a man to control me?" Cooper asked. "If I had had someone to push me in school instead of hanging out on the corners?"

Those corners were in the neighborhood of the 500 block of Brice St., where Cooper's mother moved with her two sons from the South. The 500 block of Brice St. intersects with Edmondson Avenue. The corner of Edmondson Avenue and Brice Street was made famous - or infamous - by the Stop Snitching DVD as the place where drug dealers were said to work for convicted former Baltimore police officers William King and Antonio Murray.

"My mother had a lot of pride," Cooper recalled. "She was a country girl with an eighth-grade education. As I grew, I understood what my mother did. She tried to give us an opportunity."

But there was a downside to his mother working two jobs: Her boys were left at home, often without adult supervision. It was while working as a volunteer at a drug treatment program in the 1980s that Cooper said he ran into a young man who reminded him of himself when he was younger.

"He'd been to jail early in life," Cooper said. "He'd been shot, and three members of his family had been shot to death. This kid didn't have no direction. He and I used to talk."

It was his talks with that young man and seeing teen drug addicts - "it was almost unfathomable to me that kids could be drug addicts," Cooper said - which led him to want to help even more. He took a leave of absence from his job selling electronic mailing systems to expand his work helping troubled teens.

"I could see myself as a teenager in them," Cooper said. "I believed people could change."

He never did return to his sales job. These days, he spends his time teaching ex-offenders job training skills - how to get jobs, how to keep jobs, how to dress. Punctuality and a positive attitude are high on Cooper's list of things ex-offenders need to have.

"He tells us what we need to hear," said Bruce Wilmer, who joined STRIVE's ex-offender program two weeks ago. "He's very candid. He tells us a lot of things we don't want to hear. He's very direct in his approach because he comes where I come from."

Wilmer was released in March after spending 30 years in prison. He said he worked a couple of months in ACORN's voter registration campaign before entering the STRIVE program.

"[This] program is one of the finest programs I've ever been fortunate enough to get into," Wilmer said.

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