A North Philly program tries to bring troubled kids back from the brink.
Less than 48 hours after a 30-minute eruption of gunfire across the city wounded five, killed three and pushed this year's homicide toll past 200, Juanita Story-Jones recalls the single shot that claimed her son Byron while yielding an idea that may be young Dennis Alexander's salvation.
Byron Story was only 19 when he died on a Frankford porch on Sept. 9, 2002. He was shot in the head along with his best friend Marcus, apparently over a $700 drug debt the boys' murderers believed Marcus owed them.
"The killers couldn't be identified because my son died instantly and Marcus never came out of his coma, so no one was ever arrested," the 44-year-old Story-Jones explains sadly.
But she has little time for self-pity. So little, in fact, that just two months after Byron's murder, she launched a nonprofit North Philly alternative education center aimed at steering kids who've been in trouble, as Byron had, toward more successful paths.
The Byron Story Foundation (www.byronstoryfnd.com), situated in an unassuming building on a volatile stretch of Ridge Avenue near 16th Street, preps 15- to 18-year-olds who've dropped out of or been expelled from public schools for the G.E.D. exam. It also provides the sort of counseling that could enable them to avoid contributing to--or becoming part of--the casualty count.
Many of the kids Story-Jones mentors have been sent to disciplinary schools such as Daniel Boone and Shallcross. Plenty have also found serious trouble outside the classroom.
Alexander, a beefy 17-year-old Allegheny resident, fits the mold, and last summer he began attending nighttime antidrug and antiviolence workshops here as a requirement of his adjudication into the Philadelphia Youth Advocate Program (PYAP).
On this sultry Wednesday evening he's voluntarily sitting in on a workshop attended by a dozen or so newer PYAP participants.
These baby-faced tough guys, more than a few clad in wife-beaters, coolly shrug off questions from Story-Jones and her colleague Beverly Jackson about whether they now think assaulting their principals, teachers and fellow students was worthwhile. Alexander, meanwhile, appears mature beyond his years--and not just because his girlfriend is overdue with his second daughter.
"I've been where they are," he says sagely. "I always looked old for my age, and I didn't think nobody could beat me or nothing. I used to look for trouble." He isn't lying.
When he was just 12, he bought a gun from a man he knew in the West Philly neighborhood he grew up in. "I had enough money, and, you know, I wanted it," he says. "So I bought it."
The following year, while roaming University City with four other youths one Saturday night, he punched another 13-year-old boy in the face and robbed him of money and a cell phone. (He didn't use the gun, which he'd discarded by then.) This placed him in St. Gabriel's Hall, a Montgomery County reformatory run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Even after two years at St. Gabe's, he hadn't straightened up. He started running the streets again with his cousins, who he says "are into violence and stuff."
One night last summer one of those cousins pulled up to Alexander in a strange car, and asked whether he wanted to drive. The car was stolen, and after a police chase that concluded when his car collided with another vehicle, he again found himself in handcuffs.
But by then he'd started attending Story-Jones' workshops, and both agree that something positive had taken root, even as he faced more probation time plus restitution payments for the accident.
"This place turned me around because it gave me something to do besides hang out in the street," Alexander says.
Story-Jones adds: "The thing I noticed was that he kept coming back, even after he'd completed his PYAP requirement." She smiles. "It was like we couldn't get rid of him."
Story-Jones recently hired Alexander as a junior counselor and maintenance man. And his future's looking up in other ways too.