By Janice Christensen. Photo by Joshua Sutton
Jermaine “Maine” Howard’s life is written on his skin. He has a tattoo across his chest that reads, “My past is not my future.”
Maine grew up in Riverwest, most of his life on RichardsStreet. He started coming to COA Youth and Family Centers when he was 12 yearsold.
“I wasn’t the best kid,” Maine recalls. He was mostlyinvolved in “little stuff like playing ‘chicken’ and ‘ding-dong-ditch’ –ringing the doorbell and running away. Same thing kids do now.”
But Maine’s pranks were set in a background that, inretrospect, was much darker and more dangerous. “I was around all that stuff –crime and gangs and stuff – when I was growing up,” Maine says. “I wasdefinitely an ‘at risk youth.’ A lot of people I know ask, ‘How did you makeit?’ A lot of people thought I would be dead by now.
“A lot of my friends are dead. I just lost another oneyesterday. I just saw him when we were out together on Friday night, and thenhe went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
“Probably 80 percent of my friends have been in the system.A lot of them are making twenty cents an hour [in prison] somewhere.”
But despite it all, Maine found himself on a different path.“I was fortunate enough to have both a mother and a father in my life,” hesays. “Growing up in the ‘hood – they call it the ‘hood – this place [COA]saved me. People here were role models for me, and they didn’t give up on me.”
Maine had trouble in high school. “I almost got expelled forthrowing a chair at a teacher,” he admits. “And I was living a lie. I keptsaying I was going to school and getting my work done, but when it came time tograduate, I was still a Junior.”
Then the pressure was on. “The group leaders here, they wereconstantly on me. ‘When you gonna graduate? When you gonna get your degree?’”
There was another deadline looming as well. COA’s policy wasthat youth programs are only available to those under 19. As Maine’s birthdayapproached, Kari Nervig, COA Director of Youth Development stepped in.
“It was about that time that we adopted a rule that if ayoung person had grown up in the COA youth programs, they could stay involvedif they volunteered. I approached Maine with a suggestion that he coach abasketball team,” Nervig recalls. Maine accepted.
“I remember we would take the kids over to the Goldin Center[2320 W Burleigh St] for the games, and Maine would have the whole teamchanting and cheering on the bus ride over. And they would always chant andcheer on the ride back, too. Everyone came back with a positive attitude andtalking about what had gone right in the game.
“They almost never won.”
Nervig knew she had spotted someone with a real talent foryouth work. “He’s one of those people. It’s in his bones. He understands whatkids are going through.
“Last year he had twenty kids in his daycamp group.” Nervigsaid. “If there were any kids who were having trouble in another group, hesaid, ‘I’ll take them.’”
But back when Maine was 19, there was still the problem ofthat high school degree. The combination of pressure and support was finallyenough to motivate him to finish.
“I have a brother who spent half his life in prison,” Mainesays. “I saw what he put my mother through. I didn’t want to do that.” KariNervig knows of another source of encouragement – the kids of COA.
Nirvig recalls a story she heard about Maine at that time.Even then he didn’t just work with the kids while they were at the building. Hevisited them at home and spent time with their families. He visited one younggirl in the hospital.
“She pressured him to get his degree,” Nirvig said. “Shetold him, ‘Look, Miss Pat and Miss Kari aren’t going to be there forever. Youshould get your degree so you can take over.’ If that wouldn’t motivate him, Idon’t know what would.”
Something worked, because at 26 Maine has his diploma and ajob as a Pre-Teen Group Leader at COA. “It comes really natural to me,” Mainesays. “I can adapt to almost any kid, get on their level, get them to open up.”
And the kids pay attention. There was a story about a recentexercise where the kids had to mimic their group leaders. “It was kind of hardto see,” Maine admitted. “They had my hand gestures and the way I talked andmoved. They study me. They call it ‘Maine-ology.’”
Maine is aware of the eyes on him out in the community aswell. “There are about ten kids on my block who go to COA,” he says. “They’realways around. So I’m always on the clock. Always a group leader.”
Maine does a lot for the kids, in small but important ways.“I’m a real clean guy,” he says. “I know what it feels like to have a newhaircut and a nice, sharp line. You have a different demeanor, you can bequieter, it makes a difference how you present yourself. My mom wasn’t alwaysemployed. I remember looking forward to the first of the month and havingsomething new.”
Cutting hair is one of the small things Maine does for kids.“I’ve probably cut hair for about 15 to 20 kids. I remember one kid who wasgoing to be graduating from elementary school the next day, and came to ask meto cut his hair, and the Lakers were playing. Now, the Lakers are veryimportant to me, and they were in the playoffs, so it was hard. But we got hishair cut.”
The next day that kid showed up for youth group looking goodin new clothes and a new haircut.
That’s very important, Maine says. “A lot of kids come inhere and say, ‘I’m bad, my momma says I’m bad.’ They think of themselves asbad. I don’t think of them as bad, just misguided. I see what they can be likewhen they have something new.”
New clothes and a fresh haircut can go a long way towardmaking a fresh start on the inside, and Maine doesn’t underrate that.
“Kids I work with tell me, ‘I’m from the hood and I can’tescape it.’
“I come from poverty. My house wasn’t always the happiest.I’ve been living here 22 of my 26 years. To me, it’s what road you choose to godown.
“Me and the kids just talked about this yesterday. It’s likeif you have a GPS that hasn’t been updated, and you find a road that’s closedand you have no idea what to do. You got learn how to choose a different routeto get to your goal.
“I’m just glad I’m on the road I’m on now.”
Maine’s newest project at COA is to open up the gym onSunday evenings for kids and young adults to play basketball. He’s charging twodollars for entry to pay the rent and expenses. For information, call COA at263-8383.