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Nation & World

'Somebody's On My Side': 3 Men Who Escaped Poverty Help Others Find A Way Out

Paul Collins-Hackett works at Youth Opportunity Office in Albany, N.Y. He helps children and teens who often face tough conditions. Collins-Hackett draws on his own personal or family struggles to help young people get through theirs.

Paul Collins-Hackett sits in Albany's Youth Opportunity Office trying to guide a teenage boy through the ins and outs of getting a job.

"This is the part that I don't shut up about," he instructs the young man. "If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late. If you're late, you might as well not show up."

The young man nods his head in agreement. Collins-Hackett is a little like a big brother — encouraging but direct.

When the teen mentions why he wants the job — to help his mother pay her bills so "we're not getting kicked out of houses all the time and moving around a lot" — Collins-Hackett leans in even closer.

"I completely respect that struggle," he tells the teen. "My father passed away when I was 3 and my mother's blind. So I've always been superpoor and having to help out with bills and stuff like that. So the fact that you have all those people that you're helping and you're just rising to the occasion? Go, brother. However I can help, let me know, please."

A recent study found that teens growing up in Albany's poorest neighborhoods face some of the toughest conditions in the country: crime, inadequate housing, missing parents.

So several adults — people, such as Collins-Hackett, who work for the city and nonprofits in the area — have been using what they learned from their own struggles growing up to help these kids survive and, hopefully, thrive. These efforts by individuals can sometimes have an outsized impact in that fight against poverty.

Collins-Hackett's boss, Jonathan Jones, is another one of these mentors. He credits his single mother's persistence for getting him where he is today: the city's commissioner of recreation, youth and workforce services.

"I've been part of every government program you can think of," he says, adding that his mother pushed him to take advantage of every academic opportunity he could.

Now, Jones points to a mural on the wall of the office he runs. It was painted by a teen whom he mentored, a 17-year-old gang member.

"This is him walking up his steps in order to become me, or a person in a suit," Jones says.

The mural depicts a young man — his pants hanging below his bottom — leaving behind a gun, a knife and a needle, and heading up the stairs toward a man with his arm extended. At the top, the word "success" is painted in bright orange, surrounded by pictures of a house, a car, a diploma and symbols for the phrase "peace of mind."

Does Jones know where the young man is now?

"Nobody knows," he says, but he's not too bothered by that. " 'Cause I know I had an impact. He won't forget this," says Jones, adding that you have to do what you can and hope for the best.

A mural at the Albany Youth Opportunity Office created by a former gang member shows paths to success.
/ Richard Beaven for NPR
A mural at the Albany Youth Opportunity Office created by a former gang member shows paths to success.

Research shows there are many factors that can help break the cycle of poverty: good schools, access to health care, safer neighborhoods. But there's no magic solution. Sometimes, it's just a combination of things or an encounter with the right person or having the experience.

While Jones had a strong mother pushing him along, Justin Gaddy had very little adult supervision growing up.

"I was really deep into violence, you know, that was my thing," he says from his office a few blocks away from Jones' office. Gaddy got so deep into gangs and guns that in his late teens, he was convicted on federal racketeering charges and faced the possibility of life in prison.

But he got a lucky break. When he was sentenced, he got only six years.

"That made me think, somebody's on my side," Gaddy says. It was just the nudge he needed to start turning his life around. Now, years later, he's an outreach worker for an anti-violence group called SNUG, which stands for Should Never Use Guns. Gaddy tries to stop neighborhood teens from making the same mistakes he did.

In Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood, red signs posted by the fire department on boarded-up homes indicate that there is potential the buildings could collapse.
/ Richard Beaven for NPR
In Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood, red signs posted by the fire department on boarded-up homes indicate that there is potential the buildings could collapse.

Like Collins-Hackett and Jones, Gaddy thinks it's crucial that the kids he deals with recognize that he knows exactly what they're going through.

"Like I went through the same thing," he says. "I say, 'Look at me now.' I would have never thought I'd be where I'm at right now. I got here by taking this route, and this is how we can help you."

In SNUG's case, this means redirecting them from the streets into sports, jobs and other activities.

All three men realize they can't help everyone. But they know from their own experiences that those kids they do help might someday succeed and inspire somebody else.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.