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James Smallwood: Keeping a Promise
James Smallwood, 62, started The Choice Is Yours by accident.
Almost 20 years ago, he ran across a group of single mothers in Camden, N.J., who were duped into buying dilapidated houses.
"They found themselves prostituting themselves to contractors to get things fixed," Smallwood says. "I didn't want to see ladies selling themselves just so they could get a faucet repaired."
Smallwood, a carpenter by trade, used a $5,000 grant to teach these women basic plumbing and carpentry skills so they could maintain their own homes.
Five years later, that experience inspired him to develop a 13-week program aimed at teaching ex-offenders, single mothers and anyone else in need of a hands-on trade. Whenever he has funding, Smallwood runs the class five nights a week.
Participants age 18 and older also get math, reading, GED prep and résumé assistance. Smallwood also helps his students find jobs directly after they graduate. More than 600 people have completed the program and about 82 percent remained gainfully employed for at least two years.
"Most people who are released from prison don't have a job, a home or even enough food to eat," Smallwood says. "Most of the time they end up back in prison. Our aim here is to empower them and give them skills."
Smallwood knows all too well what it's like on the streets.
He sold and used drugs for about 12 years. He spent time in prison and lived on the streets of Philadelphia for two years. In 1989, Smallwood grew tired of eating from trash bins and feeling hopeless. He made a promise to God that if he could sober up, he'd devote his life to helping others.
"I hadn't bathed in over a year and a half," Smallwood recalls. "Bugs were popping off of me. I knew I had reached my lowest point and I was ready to obey [God], and I walked many miles to a rehab center. I haven't had a drink or a drug since then."
In 2009, Smallwood received one of the $50,000 Purpose Prize awards. But he is always in search of additional funds, because his program costs between $7,000 and $8,000 per student.
He interviews about 100 people for each class and only around 30 make the cut. Smallwood receives referrals from parole boards, probation offices and word-of-mouth.
He frequently speaks to different groups about the effectiveness of his program. Smallwood has even met President Barack Obama.
“If I didn’t have devastation in my life, I wouldn’t have the knowledge that I have to help other people,” Smallwood says of his past. “I’m not angry about it at all. God had me right where he wanted me. Now I’m an example for other people that change is possible.”
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Duncan Campbell: A Friend of Children
Duncan Campbell’s parents never helped him with homework or watched him play sports growing up.
He remembers once when the police helped him search for his parents in the middle of the night — and finding them drunk at a bar.
“Both of my parents were alcoholics,” says Campbell, 64. “We were a welfare family, and my dad was in prison twice. Luckily, I was able to change those circumstances in my own life.”
Campbell says teachers and coaches mentored him and that kept him off the streets. He promised himself that if he ever became financially able, he would devote himself to helping kids from troubled families.
“The trauma of my childhood motivated me to do everything I could so I wouldn’t end up like my parents,” Campell says. “I was fortunate. A lot of people aren’t able to rise above those circumstances.”
In 1993, Campbell sold his multimillion dollar timber investment business and started Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that pairs mentors with children in need.
Campbell focuses on children just as they’re finishing kindergarten. Most of the kids he works with have been neglected, abused; about 40 percent of them are in foster care.
He supervises paid mentors, who spend at least 16 hours a month with about eight different kids, doing such things as homework, arts and crafts, and outdoor activities. Each child stays connected with a mentor until he finishes high school. Campbell says the pay isn’t great and it requires at least a three to four year commitment, but most mentors stay with the program for nearly eight years.
“It’s a results-oriented program,” Campbell says. “Other people talk about making change or give you some mumbo jumbo, but we are making real change. Eighty percent of our kids have graduated high school, 50 percent go on for further education, 92 percent have stayed out of the criminal justice system and 96 percent have not become early parents.”
Campbell won one of the $50,000 Purpose Prize awards in 2009. He says the award is great, because most other funding goes to programs aimed at teens between the ages of 13 and 18. But as he sees it, by that time it’s too late. “You really need to reach kids when they’re very young,” he says.
Before starting Friends of the Children, Campbell did extensive research to verify his theory that early intervention is what keeps kids out of the criminal justice system. The program started with three mentors and 24 children, but it now employs 82 mentors who work with more than 700 children in six cities, including Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York and Cincinnati.
“Change is possible,” Campbell says. “If anything, people should realize how rapidly things are changing. You can always make positive change. Friends never existed before, but now it does and we’ve been able to change a lot of lives.”
Latisha R. Gray is a freelance Web producer and writer based in Washington, D.C.