Kevin Hunt. Sr. works to lead young people to brighter futures. “I don’t want to see these brothers or little sisters end up in prison, dropping out of school, getting involved with any of this stuff. It’s a tough life out here.” (Photo by Dwain Hebda)

 

The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson foresaw the negative effects of careening society, the Industrial Revolution having redefined progress.

 

And contemporary society is nothing if not careening. If one’s not careful, it’s easy to lose one’s mooring. Emerson was a noted proponent of individualism and self-reliance, but he also recognized the importance of being held accountable.

 

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can,” he wrote.

 

Without such a tether, many young males today emerging into adulthood are ill-equipped to succeed and become productive members of society. Two Little Rock men are determined to provide that tether and help keep local youths moored.

 

This is their story.

 

Kevin Hunt Sr. is a junior-high dropout and former gang member who ultimately spent three-and-a-half years in prison. He had already been in and out of prison when his moment of epiphany came calling. Unfortunately, it took the death of a loved one to shake the gangbanger out of the destructive cycle that had led him astray.

 

In 2001, Hunt’s maternal grandmother died on the day before his 28th birthday. The two were close, and for years, Hunt had promised her that he’d come clean. After her death, he struggled to reconcile those broken promises. Eventually, he chose to use them as motivation.

 

“Her passing gave me life,” Hunt said. “I was upset that I had lied and didn’t follow through.”

 

Though Hunt was raised in a stable home with both parents active in his life, the siren call of gangs ultimately led him to pursue what he plainly describes as a series of bad choices: choices that led him to drop out of school before finishing ninth grade; choices that led him to be pulled in by the false promises of the street; and ultimately, choices that landed him in prison.

 

Even after his “legal timeout” at the Tucker Unit in the 1990s, Hunt — the “Sr.” addendum still years away — remained stubborn. He had his own road laid out before him.

 

“When I was in prison, I knew I was gonna go right back into the gangs,” he said.   

 

But then his grandmother died, and something changed. Hunt renewed his faith and secured his GED. Before he knew it, he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Philander Smith College and finally, an MBA from Webster University. He got married, started a family and even landed a job in the office of former Gov. Mike Beebe before serving as a fellow at the Clinton School for Public Service.

 

Ultimately, Hunt was destined to return to his own journey’s starting point, working to help young males make better choices than he did. Launched in 2018, Hunt’s Lessons Learned youth-development and intervention program works with kids in fourth grade and up at four Little Rock schools — Mabelvale Elementary, Mabelvale Middle, Cloverdale Middle and Southwest High.

 

Through the program, funded through a grant from the city of Little Rock, Hunt shares his story, teaches students about the consequences of making bad choices and, maybe most importantly, is just there to provide an ear or a fresh perspective.

 

“It’s not all about bad kids or kids involved with gangs,” he said. “It’s about kids who may have just had a bad day or a bad week. I’m able to go in and talk to em and see if I can figure out what’s going on and build a relationship. It’s all about positive reinforcement.”

 

Hunt said he talks to students about grades, helping them get jobs, making good decisions and just anything going on in their lives.

 

Jarry Jackson is a rising senior at Southwest and one of Hunt’s students. He’s a popular 16-year-old who starts for the Gryphon football team and doesn’t come across as a kid destined for gangs. But that’s the point: Hunt is there to help keep it that way, and the two have become close.

 

“That’s my guy,” Hunt said. “I’m always checking on him. We check on each other in and out of school. He comes from a good family, got a good mom and dad in his life. But you know, I just want to make sure that he’s getting additional positive reinforcement outside of what he’s already getting.”

 

Jarry’s path almost mimicked Hunt’s. Despite a stable home with both parents, Jarry made his own bad decisions and almost landed in alternate learning. He’s able to relate to Hunt in ways he can’t with others, and having him as a role model has been a big help, he said. After graduating, Jarry plans to go to college and enroll in a business/entrepreneurship program.

 

“He’s more helpful than the majority of people that I talk to,” Jarry said. “They’re supposed to help me, but [Hunt] helps me way more than they do. He makes sure my grades are good. He’s basically there to make sure I’m on the right track.”

 

Jarry is one of the lucky ones. Hunt estimates that 30 percent of the kids he works with are “going through some stuff” at home. That could mean an absentee dad, a parent who calls them profane names, living in a house with no food or where the water and gas are shut off.

 

“It’s just so much they could have been going through to make them respond the way that they do,” he said. “And that’s one thing I preach to the adults – you can’t expect these kids to come in here and be perfect. They didn’t come up like that. That’s not how their household is set up.

 

“When they come here angry and mad, you’ve got be able to see that and try to adjust and work with the kid where they’re at. Sometimes, it may be a kid sitting in the class not saying anything. Leave him or her alone. Because we don’t know what exactly that kid just went through.”

 

Working with the students inspired Hunt to launch another initiative, Two Suits, No Choice. It’s based on the notion that the streets will choose for you if allowed to do so, and “You’ll wind up in a prison suit or the suit they bury you in.”

 

Hunt’s goal is to make sure “the Jarrys of the world push through life,” he said.

 

“I don’t want to see these brothers or little sisters end up in prison, dropping out of school, getting involved with any of this stuff. It’s a tough life out here.

 

“I tell all the kids, and I try to tell the teachers too, ‘Hey, these kids are going to make mistakes. You’ve got to understand. They’re going to make mistakes all the time.’ What I do is try to get them to learn from their mistakes, so they don’t have to make the same mistake. You’re going to make mistakes, but just don’t keep doing the same thing over and over. Cause that doesn’t end up well.”

 

••••••

 

Having grown up in a full house, Andre Bradley doesn’t bat an eye when he comes home each day to a home full of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles, friends, even a godson.

 

For the West Helena native and longtime recreation director of the Penick Boys and Girls Club in Little Rock, coming home every day to a full house feels normal. After all, it’s his job to wrangle a club full of kids at Penick. What’s another house full of folks?

 

In his role at Penick, Bradley interacts with hundreds of central Arkansas kids ranging in age from 6 to 18. For many of them, the club represents their only source of positive affirmation. For some, it delivers the only real meal of the day.

 

As far as he’s concerned, Bradley is mentor to every kid who walks through the door. But one young man, a senior-to-be at Southwest, caught his attention last year and has grown to become a de facto member of the Bradley clan.

 

boys

Tayshaun Lotharp was in his third school in three months when he connected with Andre Bailey at the Penick Boys and Girls Club in Little Rock. Bailey has mentored Tayshaun and become a father figure to the 16-year-old. (Photos by DeWaine Duncan)

 

It was only November, and 16-year-old Tayshaun Lotharp was already on his third stop of the school year. His single mom had moved the family from Texas to Bald Knob and finally, Little Rock. Tayshaun is the oldest of five kids, and his dad is not a part of their lives. With his mom working long hours to support her children, Tayshaun and his siblings were signed up for Penick’s after-school program.

 

And Tayshaun, shy and reserved to begin with, struggled to fit in both at school and the club.

 

Bradley quickly recognized in him someone who badly needed a positive role model in his life, a father figure, and thus someone he needed to mentor. Tayshaun is the only kid Bradley has mentored outside the club, and he’s a regular at the Bradley house. He’s even been a part of family trips.

 

“At first, I was nervous to talk, to be honest,” Tayshaun said. “I was quiet. I didn’t really say anything too much.”

 

 

Bradley said the first thing Tayshaun needed help with was his self-confidence. And that lack of confidence allowed others to define him.

 

“He’s quiet; he’s shy. I’m trying to get him to walk with his shoulders back and his head up. He would always walk looking down at the ground. That’s a confidence thing,” Bradley said, noting that kids will pick up on insecurities. “They’re like sharks; it’s like blood in the water to them. If you show any signs of weakness or insecurity, oh, they’re going to be on you. So, I’m teaching him to be confident in who you are. You know, walk with your head up.”

 

Bradley said there’s a difference between being prideful and being proud. He teaches Tayshaun the difference.

 

“I said pride and boasting mean that you’re going to brag. You don’t have to do that,” he said. “But still, you’ve got to show some pride in who you are. And the way you show that is walk with your shoulders back and your head up.”

 

Tayshaun is learning, even if his introduction to the 2,100-student Southwest High — and then to the Bradley family — was a shock to the system at first. In the Bradley household, shy and reserved won’t cut it, and the initial exposure to it tested Tayshaun. Slowly, Bradley’s mentorship has opened him up.

 

“We get on each other, we poke each other, we laugh at each other,” Bradley said. “And in the beginning, it took Tayshaun a while to understand that we’re not doing it out of harm. We’re just making laughter. And if you can survive our household, you can pretty much deal with what the world can do to you.

 

“That’s the one thing about our household. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one’s happy, everybody’s happy. We try to share everything. Feelings, and whatever else comes with it. And the one thing I always tell Tayshaun, ‘If you want something, you better talk.’ My dad, my brothers would always tell me, ‘You have not, cause you ask not.’ And I try to get him to understand if you want something, say it. If that person can’t accommodate you, OK. But you’ll never know until you ask. If you ask and they say no, what did it hurt?”

 

Bradley played college football for Missouri State. His older brothers, Melvin and John, played college ball too. Melvin was an all-SEC defensive lineman for the Razorbacks in the late 1990s, and John played at Arkansas State and now is the defensive coordinator at Jackson State.

 

All three played high school ball for legendary coach Frank McClellan at Barton. Though the Bradley boys had their own supportive parents, McClellan became a mentor and positive influence for each. Bradley uses his example of tough love when mentoring Tayshaun and helping other kids at the club, as well as stressing to adults – be they father or father figure – how important their role is.

 

“Go out in the front yard and play catch, and if they don’t want to play catch, sit down with them at the game system, even if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “Go into their worlds, and then bring them into your world.

 

“I always talk about what we used to do when we grew up compared to what they’re doing now. And that’s a good thing. Try to compare and contrast to how things are going now. That’s how we can find that middle ground and try to keep their attention.”

 

Under Bradley’s wing, Tayshaun has taken some big steps. He even ran the concession stand during basketball games at Penick this past winter. When he graduates, Tayshaun wants to further his education and hopes to do something in the tech world.

 

“I’m trying to show him more of a positive image of Black males,” Bradley said. “I want him to see that you don’t have to be what you generally see in our communities; you can be above that. You can be better. You can do things. You can set examples. I want him to become who he wants to be and not what outside entities want him to be. Because it’s him coming in now.”

 

Bradley sees kids who come from challenging environments, and he rails against the notion that today’s generation is lazy or somehow lacking. They simply have too many options, options older generations didn’t have, he said.

 

“They get so much information, and they need us to help guide them through that information,” he said. “Because if we don’t, they’ll end up making the wrong choices. I’m a product of mistakes, but I’m also a product of people pointing me in the right direction and staying on me and telling me this is the way you need to go.”

 

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