Place for a second chance marks its first anniversary

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 7:50 AM

Ujamaa Place in St. Paul keeps young men from being lost to the street, thanks to strong fundraising.

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Damon Drake, career developer for Ujamaa Place, helped Mayo Garner with his suit and tie. Men’s Wearhouse donated suits to help with job interviews.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The day after gang member Dekoda Galtney was gunned down in St. Paul, about a half-dozen of his friends retreated to a tiny second-floor office on University Avenue, 6 miles from where Galtney was shot.

The young men, participants in a new program aimed at helping black men overcome criminal or educational obstacles, could have taken to the streets plotting revenge. Instead, they spent the day quietly reflecting on the killing and their own lives, said organizers at Ujamaa Place.

"This was not just a place of safety, but stability," said Executive Director Roy Barker. "If they didn't have this place, there would be more than a couple of guys here who would've been up for that, making a big retaliatory strike."

Ujamaa Place leaders hope that progress will continue as the nonprofit reaches the end of its first year and on Monday celebrated a milestone -- raising $1 million in a tough economic climate.

Galtney, who was released from prison in 2010, had been in the very same office just two weeks before he was shot on Sept. 28. He told Barker he wanted to enroll but couldn't because of work. It may be a stretch to say he would still be alive if he had stayed with Ujamaa Place, but participants say it's not a stretch to say that the program can dramatically alter lives.

"It's life-changing," said participant Relaun Smith, who is Galtney's cousin and was among the men who sought refuge at Ujamaa Place after Galtney's death. "I came from the streets, been around drugs, seen murders."

Smith, 20, enrolled two months ago at his probation officer's insistence. Now he's a believer.

"It's showing how you can change your life," Smith said. "They know what we've been through. They just know."

Ujamaa focuses on black men between ages 17 and 27, but accepts men of any race on a rolling basis.

The benefit to society is intangible (better, productive citizens) and practical, said retired St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, Ujamaa's president and CEO. Each participant costs the program about $4,000 a year compared with the $51,000 it costs to incarcerate one person for a year in Minnesota, he said.

Learning and earning

About 100 men have come through Ujamaa's doors, with 30 currently enrolled in the eight-month program that teaches GED classes and life, parenting and job skills. Ecumenical spirituality is also a big component.

Participants said the most important lessons aren't practical, but abstract: how to think deeper and more creatively and developing self-discipline -- how to "control your weak points," Smith said.

Two participants have reached full graduation, which means completing all of the classes and earning their GED.

Marcus Riddle, 27, is on his way to becoming the latest graduate.

Riddle landed in St. Paul in August 2010 after living on the streets of Chicago and at an Indiana shelter. He became homeless when his mother died in 2006; her family rejected him because he was adopted.

He scraped by in St. Paul by giving plasma. One day he walked into a bus shelter, saw an Ujamaa flier and on a whim snapped off one of the phone number tabs. Now he has an apartment and a job.

"Ah, man, to me it's a big turnaround," Riddle said. "It's good to have your own key and open your own door and lay on your own bed."

Community partners and donors, including the St. Paul Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation, YWCA and others have played key roles in the program's success. Men's Wearhouse recently donated and tailored suits for 10 participants.

But the year hasn't been without some tough lessons: The average reading and math comprehension is at a sixth-grade level, lunch has to be provided daily (an unplanned cost), the space is too small and more housing is needed for participants (about 90 percent are homeless).

Organizers are also considering providing evening classes in the future because many target clients, like Galtney, work during the day.

One big lesson: They originally thought $1.2 million would be enough to keep the program running for three years, but now Barker says $2 million is a more realistic figure.

"These guys have lots of needs, and we don't have lots of money," he said.

For now, the men of Ujamaa are running on hopes and dreams. This week, as they celebrate the fundraising campaign, Riddle will take two tests toward earning his GED and Smith will start a new job.

"I hope it don't stop," Smith said of the program. "Everybody needs help."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 @ChaoStrib

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