“I tried to be a street boy in Cleveland, MS; my lips should be black from all of the marijuana I smoked. My mama cried when she found marijuana in our house, so I quit cold turkey.
I think in the shower and sometimes realize I could be taking that shower in prison. I am proud that I didn’t become a statistic: prison, dying young, dropping out of high school, or becoming unemployed or a deadbeat dad. That inspired me. Ten years ago, I started the FLY Zone -Forever Lifting Youth- to help create better statistics with kids.
There was a lot of gun violence in the summer we started, and a boy in the program was killed. He was a good kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. The young folks with guns need things, but they have broken homes, poor education, and a lack of church activity. When I see kids going the wrong way, I see myself in them. I turned my life around, and they can, too. I tell them to make sure things they are doing aren’t just good ideas, but God ideas.
I may not have all of the answers, but I’ve been where they are. I am accessible and try to be the mentor I wish I had.
The majority of kids in our community have been exposed to gun violence. A young lady was killed here last Friday night. We have many funerals, but how many programs do we have for the kids still alive? We need more community services than funeral services. It should be easier for kids to get answers and help than it is to get a gun.
We take small actions after a teenager dies, but that fades until the next one. What are we doing between deaths to stop the violence? When a young person is killed, there are hundreds of comments on Facebook, but only a few people attend a program to help. That doesn’t make sense. We need action, not comments. When was the last time you volunteered to help somewhere or donated to help?
Kids are looking for credibility. They like rappers and entertainers because they are consistent, even just talking about smoking, drinking, or shooting. There is less consistency with ordinary adults, so it’s hard to see them as credible.
We have to be intentional. Kids want someone to listen to them, but mom is looking at her phone or watching TV, and dad is at work or not around. Kids turn to other places for attention and someone to look up to. Too soon, the young boy turns 18, uses drugs, and can barely read. His mom and dad missed it because they were too busy catching what they missed in their own lives. Grandmothers are now in their thirties and calling themselves ‘glam mothers.’ Where are the seasons of wisdom? Grandkids watch and get confused.
Growing up, my dad lived in Chicago, and I didn’t have a relationship with him. He showed me what not to do, but because of him I make sure my kids always have me. Dad is in my life now, and we are good. I thanked him for his example because his absence showed me the importance for a dad to be present.
Fly Zone allows me to be present and consistent for other kids, too. We have weekly meetings on Saturdays with pizza donated by Dominoes for lunch. We give out backpacks filled with school supplies and partner with local barbers who have given away more than 250 haircuts. If you look good, you might do good. We have given away iPads to kids in our reading challenge and give out bikes every Christmas. Our acronym: B I K E stands for, ‘believe in kids excelling.’
We also have community service projects, summer camps, youth conferences, and field trips. We’ve taken kids to Atlanta and St. Louis. Some kids have never been outside Cleveland or Mississippi. Tomorrow we are going to a summit for entrepreneurs. Everything in the Fly Zone has to be fly with consistency and commitment.
Transformation needs transportation. Transportation can’t be an excuse not to show up because I will pick up anyone in the Fly Zone van. My number is on the side of the van, so it is easy to contact me.
If a kid comes to me, I will pray for him, but my prayer also makes me act. I am not going to pray and leave a child’s stomach growling. Let’s pray over the food. If someone comes here with holes in her shoes, l’ll make a phone call and help out.
Fly Zone runs on donations from the community. Sometimes a person calls and says, ‘Meet me at Double Quick,’ and they fill up Fly Zone van. God keeps providing.
People talk about moving to better places. Let’s make Cleveland the place with good schools and safe parks where people want to move. We can turn off the water and solve the problems. I leave my house every morning ready for the day’s assignment and give it all I have. I come home at night with no regrets.
I married my beautiful wife, Ronda, almost 20 years ago. They call her Mrs. Fly Zone. I pour into others, and she pours into me to keep me from running out of gas. We focus on this day and our daily bread. What we ate yesterday doesn’t do us any good today. We need replenishing every day.
I graduated from high school in 1993, then graduated college fifteen years later at Delta State University. I went back to school because I didn’t want my kids to ask, ‘Why are you telling me to go to college if you didn’t go?’ I also got my master’s degree. Now I am the program coordinator for GEAR UP, a collaboration with Delta State and the Foundation for the Mid South. We work with seventh and eighth graders preparing kids for college because early exposure increases their chance of graduating from college. Many of these will be first-generation college students. My job and ministry work together.
My motto is, ‘Salute when you see me.’ It shows you agree with what we are doing. The salutes from kids or grownups at the grocery store, the ballpark, or driving down the street mean so much to me.
Everything I do shows that good can overshadow bad. It has to. I will do all I can to share that goodness until I can’t do it anymore.”