Special delivery

Scott Gordon

Willis Johnson wants to fix the problems he has seen throughout his life and on his mail route for the last eight years.

On Simpson Street the 45-year-old U.S. postal worker rushes to finish his deliveries. As Johnson darts from house to house, little children run up and ask if he has candy for them. But the older kids on the street, probably 16 or 18 years old, just loiter on the sidewalk, trying to look tough.

“Nobody wanted this route,” Johnson said. “That’s how I was able to get it.”

Johnson wants to give the kids in the Fifth Ward neighborhood something better to do than stand on street corners. His vision, called the Skills, Talent and Management Program, or STAMP, would allow people of all ages to get off the streets and find useful employment in their fields of interest.

A program focusing on developing the “God-given talents” of each individual could succeed, Johnson said. “Everybody’s interested in something.”

Motivated By Experience

Johnson understands why many youths struggle to find direction. Exposed to stories of gang violence in his Chicago neighborhood as a child, he gave up on school and dropped out at age 16, when his father died. As a teenager, Johnson was almost driven to suicide by his inability to handle difficult situations logically.

“Without education you’re working on your emotions and not your ability to reason,” he said.

After dropping out of high school, Johnson spent about two years doing “demeaning jobs” at a health center in Chicago. He finally quit his job and got his high school equivalency degree in four years. Johnson then entered Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as an English major, hoping to become a news reporter. But when he went home for Thanksgiving during his first year away, Johnson fell into old habits — dropping out and spending all his time hanging out with friends.

Eventually Johnson got a job in a factory and spent the next 13 years making baby mattresses and car seats.

“It was a lesson, because I didn’t know how to work,” he said.

Now he is a father of three with a home on Chicago’s South Side and a one-man photography business. Johnson has overcome a lot, and he said that’s why he understands the problems that keep kids on the streets.

“When you see so many people not having things,” he said. “You just want to help out.”

A Second Chance

The main obstacle facing Johnson and his program is that drug dealing and crime pay off faster than more long-term goals.

“It’s easier to start a gang than it is to get this program started,” he said at a meeting three weeks ago that drew only two people.

Johnson hopes to get clients committed to the program by offering them paid apprenticeships. Eventually, some could also learn entrepreneurial skills, establish their own businesses and hire from within the community. The businesses would then ideally give a portion of their profits back to STAMP.

Statistics provided by Evanston Police Department show Evanston could have a potential base of participants for Johnson’s program. According to the EPD’s 2002 annual report, the department made 505 criminal arrests of juveniles last year. About 100 of them were referred to two department programs that provide counseling and community service opportunities.

But traditional school and social programs aren’t tailored to deal with the problems of today’s children, Johnson said. The school system has a “do-it-our-way-or-you-fail” approach, leaving many kids uneducated and unable to handle challenges.

He said his program would be different.

The idea is to include everybody who needs help and is willing to work, he said. Even if you’re an addict or have a felony on your record, you can participate, as long as you have some idea of what you want to do.

“Once we start the snowball effect within the community,” Johnson said, “little kids will see teenagers doing something constructive, instead of doing drugs and gang-banging.”

Scarce Funding

An equally difficult problem is finding enough help.

Johnson said some Evanston residents already have given up on working with the community. He hopes to draw in adults in dead-end jobs who “might want to do something different” by working for his program.

So far Johnson has found only eight or nine people willing to assist him. He’s hoping the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, 1655 Foster St., will help jump-start STAMP by using his clients as a disc jockey and an engineer for the center’s high school graduation dance in June.

Johnson is trying to reach Evanston community organizations and city government departments, hoping to find businesses that will help train his clients and organizers who will teach him how to get grants and funding for STAMP.

Bennett Johnson, head of public relations for the Illinois NAACP, read Willis Johnson’s proposal and sent him suggestions for presenting and organizing the program.

“Most of these kids are entrepreneurs because they’re involved in illegal activities, which take a certain degree of ingenuity and assertiveness,” Bennett Johnson said.

But he added that getting the general community committed will be hard. He also said the people Willis Johnson wants to help are better suited for jobs in sales, not service.

Directors of existing social programs in Evanston understand the hardships Willis Johnson faces in starting STAMP.

Ann Jennett, a founder of the Youth Job Center of Evanston in 1983, understands the many difficulties involved in starting a job program and getting people to stay in it. After funding ran out for the job placement program Jennett had created at Evanston Township High School, she had to build a new operation out of nothing.

In a short time, she assembled an executive board, renovated an old house on Grove Street and found grants to fund the center, which primarily targets kids who are out of school.

The Youth Job Center also opened the Ben & Jerry’s PartnerShop in the downtown Evanston to further the mission of the organization, which serves more than 1,100 clients each year.

Jennett said that to keep clients from getting discouraged, the job center, now located on Church Street, works hard to “troubleshoot” relationships between clients and their job supervisors and provide a welcoming environment.

“For most of these kids,” she said, “the job is the first time where they feel wanted, needed and respected.”

Though her program has been successful, Jennett acknowledges that there’s still a “great need” for programs like STAMP.

Despite all the challenges facing him, Willis Johnson doesn’t get too discouraged — in fact, he hopes to expand his program to cities across the country. He believes God guides things in the right direction.

“We can choose how we want to do it,” he said. “But we all have certain things to do.”