Once the streets get a hold of you…it’s hard to get away

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The Common Ground Initiative
The Common Ground Initiative
Once the streets get a hold of you…it’s hard to get away

Above: Listen to Anthony Payton’s interview with John Rainville,  Executive Director of the Manchester Police Athletic League

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When gangs target kids for recruitment, they’re looking for youth who need acceptance from their peers and guidance from someone older. Unfortunately, Manchester and many urban neighborhoods across America have an abundance of those kids. 

They seek to be respected by their peers, and some will go to any lengths to attain stature. When they see their peers wearing the latest fashion and newest phone, it piques their interest. They come from homes where money is tight and embrace a culture that prioritizes materialism. This is a toxic combination for kids in those environments and people in those communities.

We hope that, if not from the guidance of their household, they learn social behavior from teachers and counselors. And we also hope that those kids will have some positive peer influences.  

But how does that kid take a mentor seriously when sharing his clothes with his siblings and living in a household below the poverty line?

It’s hard to expect these kids to be invested in classwork and furthering their education. External problems like hunger and economics can make the difference between a kid just going to school and a kid doing well in school and mapping their future. And don’t forget, there are bullies in rough neighborhoods, some with weapons. 

These are the overlooked but tumultuous bubbles that some New Hampshire kids live in. 

It’s not likely they’ll tell their parents that their gaming friend is also a drug dealer whom others want to harm, and they hang out with him almost daily. This increases the likelihood that your child’s affiliation will link him to his friend’s criminal behavior. Even worse, your child can be physically harmed by rival dealers or rival gangs just by hanging out with that same friend. 

And in case you haven’t figured it out by now; statistically, these kids’ home life and environment don’t typically churn out success. 

Positive youth programs have positively impacted kids’ lives, increasing their chances of success. At-risk youth faces criminal behavior, teen pregnancy, suicide and drug abuse issues. According to federal research, mentoring by positive adult role models and older peers can prevent those negative outcomes.

In the second part of this series, “Avoiding Prison or an Early Death,” I continue to highlight the organizations connecting this demographic to mentors from their communities. Programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of New Hampshire (BBBS NH) and the Manchester Police Athletic League (MPAL) look to bring positivity and structure to these young lives via mentorship and programs. They align youth with men and women who have been on the other side of the tracks and can now speak from an honest and experienced place.

Below: MPAL Kids

Points of intervention


Robert Leone is the recruitment and corporate partnership manager for BBBS NH. A single mother raised Robert in the housing projects of Cambridge, Mass., in the 70s and early 80s. Although he went to a Catholic parochial school, he was still a “project kid” and had to deal with everything that went along with it. Peer pressure took Robert off course, and he followed the crowd, becoming an at-risk youth himself. Robert also had to fight and stand up when his bike was stolen or someone threatened his safety. He dealt with everything that a project kid endures, in addition to people addressing him like, “Hey, white boy.” Robert was determined not to be the soft one.

At Robert’s high school, his teacher was a colonel from the U.S. Army Reserves. He told Robert that he was lucky to have ended up at that high school, and then told Robert that he was joining the Army. 

Luckily, unlike so many others, Robert eventually got on the right path as soon as he joined the military. Many times, this isn’t the case. Big homies, as they’re called, don’t have the lil’ homies’ best interest at heart. This is especially true if the big homies lead a life of crime themselves. In those situations, they give the lil’ homies drugs and guns to transport. They know the court system will be lenient on the younger guys. They’re the negative influence and see the younger boys and girls as pawns to help them thrive and succeed. This is at the expense of the younger kids. 

Despite that, the lil’ homie thrives on attention. As Tupac famously rapped, “I hung around with the thugs/And even though they sold drugs/They showed a young brother love.”

When you look at the mechanics of BBBS NH, the same elements are in play: the love is there. The older youth lead the younger in the most positive and productive ways. 

The BBBS NH provides a place for young boys and girls to be paired with a mentor that can help get them through periods of vulnerability-and they create a positive model for these young people to follow. They make a culture of empowering New Hampshire’s youth and have taken mentorship to great heights, including one-on-one mentoring, workplace mentoring, and “Bigs with Badges,” which pairs these kids with members of law enforcement and other first responders. 

There are many programs at BBBS NH that target kids with unique challenges. PRISM (Pride, Respect, Identity, Safety, Mentoring) supports kids who identify as LGBTQ – a demographic with higher chances of struggling with mental health and discrimination. Kids who’ve experienced trauma also have a chance to pair with mentors that can help them through their experiences. While Mentor 2.0 places emphasis on low-income and first-generation high-schoolers. 

BBBS NH has served nearly 600 Granite State children. But the impact could be greater: there are currently 232 children waiting for a mentor. These programs need community support from all of us. You – yes you – can make a difference by becoming a mentor or donating money during their “Thankful Giving” campaign, which is running now. 

Building Respect and Community

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From the outside, you’d think the colossal building on the corner of Beech and Lake street in Manchester is a police academy or substation with a formidable facade. But inside, there’s an elite-level boxing gym, a well-kept kitchen used for culinary arts classes, and a huge area for wrestling and Aikido classes. This is where MPAL looks to serve the 8,600 at-risk youth within a mile of the facility and beyond.

John Rainville, executive director of MPAL, explains that there is magic when officers meet and interact with community members and their children. This is how respect is built, and this is a way for people to have a sense of community. In addition, he loves watching the kids grow a sense of pride and confidence through athletics. MPAL also hosts court diversion programs for first-time offenders. This program gives kids a chance at not having a criminal record or any blemishes in their background. Ultimately, they will sit in front of a panel to tell their story. The panel looks for consequences and atonement. 

John continues to let the kids know they don’t have to give in to those influences on the streets. 

Officer Ryan Hardy helps train the kids in boxing and other athletic programs that MPAL offers. He believes familiarity is key in building relationships with these kids, and he sometimes brings his own children into the facility to interact with the MPAL kids. He prefers those kids to see the human side of him. He lets them know he’s more than just a uniform and even proves this by sometimes showing up in casual wear. 

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Ryan, who has been at MPAL for three years, loves seeing how the kids come in versus how they leave. Whether they came in a bit rowdy or timid, they leave with discipline, respect for others, and respect for themselves. Ryan believes in not holding their hands and letting them lead themselves; eventually, they will lead others.

These programs, BBBS NH, MPAL, and MYTURN ( another organization in Manchester dedicated to helping at-risk youth that I’ve covered previously), are all viable organizations that can change the life course of our young residents free of charge. 

Robert of BBBS NH knows this first hand. When he returned from the military, he began working with a mentor who was a successful businessman. Robert rose through the ranks in sales and finances, but he felt the industry stripped away at his soul. Now, he was in a position to provide the same type of guidance and mentorship that he had. In the same way he struck gold in terms of interventions and support, he wanted to give back to others in hopes of positively influencing their lives. Now 52, Robert is in a great place in his life and in his role. Within his position, he’s helping those kids and meeting great people who also want to give back. 

The outlook seems grim, but we can give families and kids hope. People tend to look down on immigrants and the culture they’ve brought to America, but I believe we need to adopt some of the community and family values they arrive at our shores with. Let each one teach one. We all need to get involved and start raising villages.

GSNC 2 ColorThese stories are part of The Common Ground Initiative which aims to highlight the diversity of our communities with stories of people the average Granite Stater might not get to see or meet, clarify misconceptions and find the threads that bind us all together as one New Hampshire community.  They are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


About this Author

Anthony Payton

This column is part of The Common Ground Initiative which aims to highlight the diversity of our communities with stories of people the average Granite Stater might not get to see or meet, clarify misconceptions and find the threads that bind us all together as one New Hampshire community.