East St. Louis Center Tries To Put Kids On The Right Track

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EAST ST. LOUIS • In his 23 years heading the Christian Activity Center here, Chet Cantrell could rattle off dozens of names of kids who have gone to college, landed great jobs and are raising families. The number of children served continues to grow, as does the number of programs offered to prepare youths for jobs and college. There are plenty of success stories to share.

On this particular day, though, Cantrell is stung by the reality that comes with being in this city. He knows he shouldn't be by now. Violence continues as a backdrop for the children attending after-school programs here at Sixth Street and Summit Avenue, many of whom live next door in the Samuel Gompers housing complex.

A regular at the center was among three young men killed early Sunday outside an East St. Louis nightclub. Another of the victims had attended the center until his family moved to Alton.

And one of the center's current success stories sits in jail instead of with his classmates at East St. Louis High School, charged with robbery. This is the latest evidence that for all the good the center does, it's fighting against the strong current of crime that has washed through this beleaguered city for decades.

Cantrell has no solution for the violence, but knows he can keep it at bay while children are inside his center. He says the center's mission must be that of good neighbor, referring to the oft-quoted Bible verse about turning the other cheek.

"Somebody has got to absorb the evil."

SUCCESS DERAILED

Cantrell, a North Carolina native, has a master's degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. His strong faith, paired with hope, keeps him focused.

"I had a mentor that told me I had to keep perspective," said Cantrell, 51. Otherwise, "it could easily crush you," he said.

With God's guidance, he believes he can achieve his dreams and help those who come here achieve theirs.

For years, the center struggled to find its way. Juvenile crime was skyrocketing when Cantrell arrived in 1989. Prostitutes sought customers exiting a bar next door to the Christian Activity Center.

When the bar closed, the center bought it in 2005 and tore it down. A playground now stands on part of the land. Cantrell has his eye on four nearby derelict properties that could significantly transform what the 14,200-square-foot center offers. At nearly 3 acres, the land could become two baseball and two soccer fields.

Darion Graham began coming to the center when he was 8, and eventually became a teen employee, helping children in the computer lab. Now a senior at East St. Louis High, he talks of getting a college degree in computer science, finding a good job and becoming successful. But his life took a different direction on Aug. 16. That's when he and two other teens allegedly mugged a man, police say. The teens claimed they were hungry and needed money for food. At 18, Graham is facing felony robbery charges and remains in jail until he makes bail, set at $30,000.

"We didn't see this coming at all," said Cyra Lohman, the center's development director. Graham was one of the standouts, a poster child for the nonprofit organization.

"One thing that's broken my heart through the years is teenage guys on the brink of taking the next step," Cantrell said. "Kids who have never seen the other side of success. They just do something stupid."

It happens, he says, when teens begin getting flak in their neighborhood for aspiring to become something more.

"Darion was a wake-up call for me," Cantrell said. "We're stronger than we've ever been, but not strong enough."

His point was driven home again on Sunday. Center regular Alonzo Phieffer, 19, was one of three killed in a fight in the parking lot of Club VIP during what police said was "teen night."

"He was an A (and) B student. So proud of his grades," Lohman said. Phieffer attended East St. Louis High School with Graham.

GROWING PROGRAM

Cantrell is frustrated that the forces of living in one of the poorest, most dangerous cities can take down even the most promising youths who have been walking through the doors of the center since 1950.

While the city's population continues to drop, the need to help children increases. In the past three years, the number of youths ages 6 to 18 who have come to the center has grown to 1,225 a year, up from 875. By comparison, the city's population has dropped by 14 percent in a decade. A void left by the closing of Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee's youth center in 2009 is one reason for the bump, although that facility has reopened.

In addition to classes in martial arts, dance, computer and the Bible, the Christian Activity Center, or CAC, now has child advocates who go into classrooms to monitor success and encourage parents to be more involved at school.

The center also has begun what it calls its Pathways program, teaching students as young as sixth grade skills for the job market and college.

"We have to get them thinking beyond high school," Cantrell said. In the last three years, cumulative grade-point averages for students who come here regularly have risen to 3.2, from 2.5 on a 4.0 scale.

The center also has a teen employment program, offering work experience.

"There are no jobs here," Cantrell said. "I ask the kids what they want to do when they grow up. The girls say 'work at McDonald's or Walgreens. Or like mom, work at Busch Stadium.' The boys have no clue. They don't see men who work. They see them hanging on the corner. If they do have an answer, it's professional basketball or football player. Or rap star."

Also on staff now is a child therapist. "It's another piece to try to wrap around kids so when they make choices, they are not based on past hurt, trauma," he said.

PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES

Hurt is unfortunately commonplace here. "I have been to way too many funerals for children of the CAC and their family members that were tragic, senseless, untimely," Cantrell said.

Cantrell knows that without the center, hundreds of children would have no opportunity to learn about computers, eat a hot meal after school, play in a safe, supervised place, get homework help or attend classes preparing them for a higher education. Parents and police know this, too.

Police Chief Michael Floore said the city has few organized sports, and many kids cannot afford to go to nearby Belleville or O'Fallon for gymnastics or other classes. Kids often turn to a life of crime because there is nothing else to do, he said. The Gompers housing complex is a particular "trouble spot." The complex of 240 apartments is for mothers and their children. Police often are called to handle visitors there, or illegal residents, he said.

Lucretia Jones, who lives at Samuel Gompers, credits the center with helping engage her four children in school. Her oldest is now in college. "The center helps parents produce productive young people," she said. And Jones likes that it offers Bible classes and Sunday worship.

Jones said many children who attend the center have parents who don't know how to read and write and cannot help with homework. The center increases education opportunities.

"This is an escape to happiness for some of them," Jones said.

Her son, La'Tiece, 17, calls the center a second home. He gets help with his Spanish homework, plays basketball and lifts weights. His brother, A.J., 11, says the center keeps him out of trouble.

As a missionary and a pastor, Cantrell sees the center as his calling.

The center is funded, in part, by the North American Mission Board, part of the Southern Baptist Convention. Grants and donations help prop up the nonprofit's $1.2 million budget. The board asked Cantrell to take the post.

In essence, Cantrell is following the footsteps of his missionary parents, who raised him in North Carolina's Appalachian country. "I felt that all that had happened to me in life ... had led me to this place and time," Cantrell said. "Going in, I believed anything was possible. And now, I know anything is possible."

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