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Building lives while building buildings

By Fannie Flono

When I met Johnny Bing a couple of weeks ago, I knew three things: He had dropped out of school. He had spent a couple of years in prison. And he had gotten a second chance to get his life back on track.

I was most intrigued by the last thing. The second chance was coming by way of Men Who Men Who Care Global.

That name might ring a bell to some readers. It’s the group of black male volunteers who formed more than a year ago after a violent Memorial Day melee in uptown Charlotte resulted in 70 arrests, two shootings and one death involving African American youth. Businessman Ron Leeper and several other African American men vowed to work to prevent such events from happening in the future. They said they would do it by modeling good behavior to black youth, seeking them out and offering to help and guide them.

They’ve been a steadying influence since then, a visible presence in their orange T-shirts at major street celebrations in uptown. Police and city leaders have credited them with helping the events stay orderly and safe.

They challenged other black men to join them in mentoring and engaging young black males – and scores have.

Now Leeper and Men Who Care have another idea, and another challenge to offer.

With a little innovative help, they think young men like Bing who’ve gotten on the wrong path can find their way to being productive citizens.

Leeper is willing to put his money and resources behind the idea, and hopes others will too.

The idea grew from a six-week E.M.P.O.W.E.R. summer program Men Who Care launched this year. The program focused on 10-15 African American males who had gotten into trouble with the law and who had failed or were at risk of failing high school. The goal was to provide skills training, life skills development, financial literacy help and other services. At the end of the six weeks, 82 percent had completed the program – 9 out of 11; all of those remaining received fiber optics and broadband training and successfully passed certification requirements.

Johnny Bing, 22, was one of those nine.

But after the summer program ended, Bing and the others expected something the program didn’t deliver – a job.

Leeper decided that wouldn’t do – and came up with an idea he hopes will take root with other businesses. He set up an internship/apprenticeship program and offered it to one of the participants.

He persuaded the developer, subcontractors and others associated with the Hope VI Renaissance development project at Boulevard Homes that his firm, Leeper Construction, is working on to take part: “I said, ‘We’re trying to build buildings but while we’re building buildings, we also want to build some lives too. We’d like for you to buy into this. We’re not asking you to take on the burden. We’ll pay some of the cost. (Leeper is paying the salary of the participant and covering insurance costs.) And we’re willing to use Men Who Care to evaluate the people to make sure they are job ready.”

Participants in the summer program were then interviewed to see who was ready. Bing fit the bill.

A few weeks into the program, where he’s learned everything from electrical wiring to framing buildings, Bing gets good marks from the construction supervisor who calls him motivated, eager to learn and always very prompt.

That’s impressive, given that at 22, this is the first job Bing has ever had. The summer program gave many of the young men some first-time lessons in job etiquette.

It’s paid off for Bing, who says: “I wake up every morning looking forward to going to work.”

Thanks to Men Who Care, he says his life has changed: “Before Men Who Care, I didn’t have goals, didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. But I got into the program; listened to Mr. Leeper talk, and said I want to be like him.”

Bing, who spent two years in prison for breaking and entering, says he wishes there had been a Men Who Care program when he was getting on the wrong track. But he blames himself for his troubles, no one else. He was bored in school, wanted things he couldn’t afford, and just decided to take them.

“But I spent two birthdays in prison. I didn’t want to spend no more birthdays in prison. I told myself I can’t put myself back in this position, being away from family and friends. I can’t go back there,” he said.

Men Who Care executive director Victor Earl says there are many young men like Bing in our community, and they’re not getting the help they need and want. “We’re saying (as Men Who Care Global that) they’re still in our society and we need to do something with them… The kids tell us, ‘Y’all always telling us just say no but what do you want us to say yes to? Don’t tell me not to sell drugs, and not show me what else to do.’”

The kids have a point.

Leeper sees this internship/apprenticeship growing to include refining work skills in a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College. Men Who Care is already directing some kids they’ve met to CPCC to get their GED if they didn’t graduate from high school.

Leeper plans to offer other youth who’ve gotten into trouble internship/apprenticeships for other projects his firm is working on, but he and Men Who Care will continue to provide support and advice to Bing to ensure his success – as they provide continued support to others in their mentoring and job training programs.

“We’re trying to build a sustainable model. We hope other contractors and other employers will take a look at what we’re doing or will hear about what we’re doing and say, ‘we can do that, we’ll take a kid’ to help too,” Leeper said.

I hope they do too. Their actions could not only help build lives but help build this community too.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Write to her at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, N.C. 28230-0308. Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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