David became friends with a 20-year-old attending the program, frequently bringing Stephen home for dinner. Stephen began staying with our family, and continued, off and on, for the next several months. No formal arrangements were discussed – our house is big, with four distinct floors, and I was suffering from a guilt hangover for not taking in vulnerable teenagers in the past. Then Stephen returned to the States to visit his mom and we lost contact.
Fast forward 12 months: Stephen’s life had taken a criminal turn. He had been charged with a serious offence and was in jail awaiting trial. No one was willing to post bail. David asked my wife, Bev, “Please Mom, can you help Stephen? An inmate was just killed in the same jail and I’m afraid Stephen could be next.”
My wife is unusually kind and generous, but she’s no fool. You don’t mess with her. Bev sensed something special about Stephen – a spark, an intangible goodness – and after consulting with me, we agreed to post his bail.
When he was eventually convicted, Bev’s intense intervention, combined with a devoted legal aid lawyer, resulted in Stephen receiving an 18-month conditional sentence. As long as he stayed with us under house arrest, he did not have to go back to jail.
When Bev posted bail for Stephen, one of the parties in the justice system warned: “You’re naive and wasting your time. You’ll never get this kid on track.”
With next to no contact with his father, Stephen’s rage at the world in general, and white people in particular, was palpable. But when he phoned his mom from our kitchen, a different person emerged. Affectionate, vulnerable, kind, child-like: If ever there was a kid starved for love with a reservoir of his own to give back – if he trusted you – it was him.
And once you peeled back his raw swagger and strutting bravado, he was bright, honest and very funny.
Preternatually loyal, he was still vulnerable to the temptation of the easy money that comes with lawless behaviour. This was the deal: So long as Stephen complied with the house rules, many of which were tougher than the court’s conditions, he could live with us indefinitely.
It was not a seamless transition for any of us. But despite the hiccups, and the occasional family meeting where Bev and I read Stephen the riot act, our new family dynamic was workable.
Through Bev’s connections, Stephen completed an employment training program funded in Scarborough. Studying hard when not in training, he managed to get his high school equivalency.
Several months later, Bev found a facility downtown that provides a training and employment program for young men. Stephen is now working at a trade, 10 hours a day, five days a week. And, rather than costing the taxpayer money rotting in jail, learning new and better ways to commit crimes, he’s paying taxes. Stephen is still living with us.
The need to give back to the community
So what do we do about all this violence? As I write these words, I feel as saddened and burned out by the week, and its subsequent reportage, as any other Torontonian. Do we round up the gang-bangers and send them away forever? Boot them out of our precious city?
Certainly, this kind of political talk plays into people’s feelings of helplessness and anger. And in a world where people are hungry for quick fixes and sound bites, for instant gratification, there’s no patience for the long, slow rebuilding process: implementing after-school programs, hiring more community workers to act as mentors, adding more job training programs in marginalized areas.
However, if we don’t invest now, in so-called priority neighbourhoods, with music classes, athletic facilities, and skills training and mentoring, we will all pay more in the long run.
My son tells me, “Dad, you should be giving back more to your community.”
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