The first time that I met Brad was in the counseling room at the County Juvenile lock up. He had just turned 15 years of age. Brad had been living on the streets in a very low income neighborhood. His father was long gone and out of the picture for most of his life. His mother was an addict of drugs and alcohol. Strange men went in and out of the house daily. Brad survived on the streets by stealing and trash picking. When School started at the beginning of his 10th grade year, Brad didn’t show up. Brad had escaped from county custody twice. He escaped once from the Police car transporting him to Juvenile hall. And he escaped a second time from the Juvenile hall counseling office.
Brad’s parole officer gave him an ultimatum. Enter into the state Juvenile system (a State Juvenile Jail) and stay there until he turned age 21, or go to a private low security group home type of facility where he could leave as early as age 18. If he chose the private facility, Brad was warned that even one run away attempt would put him directly back into the state system. He would have to agree to total cooperation including the Christian principles that he would be taught there at the private facility.. Brad chose to go with me back to the private facility. I learned a lot about Brad during that drive back. He was a very intelligent young man. I could already see his defiant nature pushing back at me. On the positive note, He did actually talk and open up a bit. Even though he put up that tough guy act, I sensed the fear behind that act. God gave me a great spirit of empathy for Brad and I was determined with God’s help to reach into his heart. I personally took Brad through the check in process and introduced him to the School staff, then brought Brad down to the house and introduced him the other 12 boys in my house. I was a single house parent/counselor at that time. I was in my young twenties and I loved my job. To me it was my mission field.
Brad fit in pretty well, with the exception of getting beat up once or twice by a few gang kids from North Philly, and having some of his favorite clothes and his watch stolen. It was hard to watch everyone and everything, all the time. I usually got them all into bed around 10 PM when the night watch shift came in. The night watch guys were usually college students who just sat and studied the whole night making sure no one left and nothing happened.
The first major incident occurred about 3 weeks into Brad’s stay. I had to meet Brad in the school masters office when he was kicked out of class for incorrigibility. The defiant gene was coming out in him. I took him back to the dorm and gave him the drill sergeant treatment until he began to cry. I nearly cried too but I had to hold back. I am sure that he sensed the tears in my eyes as well. It was good to see some sensitivity in him. I basically told him that this could never happen again. I said “Brad, I want you to make it here. I want you to succeed. From here on in, I am going to be tougher on you but you are going to know that I care. DO YOU GET IT!” He squeaked a “Yea” out between the tears.
The third month in, Brad had another tangle with the gang kids and he looked pretty bad. We disciplined the entire house that night, and there was house silence as we put them to bed. Of course no one wanted to rat anybody out. We did the normal devotional time together but I sensed something was going on. I warned the night watch guys to be extra vigilant tonight. Sure enough, I received the horrifying phone call from the night guys around midnight. The news hit me hard. Three of the boys including Brad were missing from their beds during the midnight bed check. It was brad and 2 of the less aggressive North Philly boys, Leon and Darrel. Leon and Darrel were from North Philly; but they were usually more the victim than the perpetrator. The facility was surrounded by farms and corn fields. If I called the Police, which is protocol, Brad would surely be sent back to the county as soon as they were caught. I was surprised that Leon and Darrel were part of this as they have been here for years and were not part of the trouble makers. I had to find them before this got out of hand.
I ran down to the cornfield below the housing area to the first cornfield. It is interesting that when boys do run away from this facility, they often chose this same path. That’s because the other way goes into the dark woods and seems scary, especially to the city boys. As I stood perfectly still and listened carefully, I heard the rustling of corn stalks several hundred yards away. The sounds were getting further and further away. I ran back to the dorm and hopped on my motorcycle and drove around the backs roads several miles to get to the other end of that field. I waited in silence again as the rustling sounds and voices came closer and closer. Sure enough as they walked out the other side of the field, I was there to greet them. I nearly made their heart stop as I screamed with all I had “Leon! Brad! Darrel! Stop right there! I walked up to Brad nose to nose and screamed at the top of my lungs “What are you guys doing?” Tears came down Brads cheeks. Leon was a little guy and he just trembled, and Darrel put on the tough guy act. You know; the jail block stroll walk. I walked them back to the Dorm and took them into my dorm office.
Brad asked. “Am I going back to County Lock up?” “Brad, do you want to go back to county lock up?” I asked.
Brad squeaked out “No”.
I said, “Brad, Should we send you back?
Brad. ….. No answer.
When I asked the boys why? They remained silent. Eventually, Leon and Darrel simply said they “didn’t want to be no Rat”.
The report that I wrote up didn’t use the words “run away”, and we finally got to the bottom of the problem. Leon finally gave us enough information to figure out what was going on. The 3 boys had been threatened by another very large Philly gang boy named Mitch who has been an ongoing problem. Since he hadn’t been making any progress in the program, we recommended that Mitch be sent back to the Philly juvenile system. The act of removing him solved many problems. Unfortunately, the prognosis for boys like him is not good. It hurts to lose any of them, but I know we can’t help them all. That was the hardest part with this job, and it seemed like an admission of failure to me. Even Mitch was a casualty that I didn’t want to have.
That was the last major incident that I had with Brad. Brad did come crying to me several times claiming that I was so hard on him and that I was tougher on him than the other boys. He had also complained about me during his Psychologist sessions. I admitted that as I was really driven to see Brad succeed. And yes, I expected more from him. As a result, yes, I was harder on him than the others. Brad did become a leader and a good influence over the younger boys
Brad and I grew closer during his 11th grade year. I often took him with me over the weekends to my parent’s home for some family time which he had never experienced. I also took Brad to Church with me every week along with 7 or 8 other boys. In 12th grade, Brad was enrolled in the public school system. I took him to school nearly every morning. It was a great time to talk one on one with him.
A Middle aged outside couple took an interest in Brad. They never had children and they began taking him every weekend to their home and to their Church. When Brad graduated from High School, he was also released from our facility. I was so proud of Him. The same outside couple took him to move into their home and they pretty much adopted Brad as their own son. Over the next year, I lost contact with Brad. I continued to pray for Brad and many of the boys that I had special relationships with.
Fast forward 35 years; 1974 to 2009. I received a message that a call from Florida was holding for me and his name was Brad. As I picked up the phone a voice said “is this Ed Spencer?”
“Yes it is” I said.
“Are you the Ed that worked at the Juvenile Home back in ’74?”
“ Yes, that’s me”
“My Name is Brad ******. Do you remember me?”
As I burst into tears. All choked up I said, “I sure do”
Brad proceeded to tell me that he lived in Florida now. He is married with children and grand children and the couple that took him in at age 18, were now living with him and he is taking care of them in their old age. The reason Brad called. “Ed, I just wanted you to know that I know why you were so tough on me, ….. Thanks” . Interestingly, in our old age I came to realize that Brad was only about 7 years younger than I.
Brad’s phone call 35 years later was one of the most encouraging phone calls I have ever taken.
It took a team of mentors to carry Brad through his teenage years. If one success story helps us get over the dozens of failures, then all of our efforts were worth the work, the tears, the rejections, the spent emotions, the drama, and the sleepless nights.
Over the years I have continually prayed for many of those boys. I would love to know what became of each one of them. I used to often check the department of Corrections inmate locator site to see if any of them became career criminals. I have not found any so far. I do know a few died in the ganglands later on.
There are young men everywhere that need a mentor, a friend, a father figure. It might be a neighbor, a youth from Church, a young man behind bars.
Check out www.prisonmentoring.com for more information, and more mentoring stories!
By Ed Spencer