Community Leader Cares for Neighbors in the Midst of Crisis

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My name is Randall and I’m employed by the state of Illinois and have worked for the Department of Corrections for 26 years. I’ve seen a lot of young men and women come through our facilities. Some of them I recognize from my hometown I grew up in…even some of my former teammates. The longer I was there, I knew that I wanted to do more than just watch them come through the system.

I got transferred to a work-release center and was appointed as the recreational activities chairman, which meant I was responsible for coming up with activities for the residents. We had limited resources, so I started looking to the community for support.

I wanted to expose our residents to a variety of activities–plays, outdoor venue concerts, art displays, museums—anything that they had not had the opportunity to experience before. My hope was that they would learn from it and want to share those experiences with their kids.

Once I started doing that, it became like second nature to me. I realized that I wanted to be more helpful on the front end to prevent young men and young ladies from ever coming into the Department of Corrections.

So I went back to my community. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I know what it feels like to be hungry. My mom was a hardworking single mother who at times had health issues that I didn’t understand when I was younger, but she pushed through even when times were hard.

Sometimes there was not much food in the refrigerator. We grew up without air conditioning, and our refrigerator didn’t produce ice. I’ve experienced boiling hot water to take a bath…so all this led me to want to do more for the youth that came up behind me in my community.

About 25 years ago, my friend Michael Finley, who played in the NBA for the Dallas Mavericks, started a free basketball camp in our community. Mikey grew up next door to me, and he and I couldn’t afford anything like that when we were kids. I saw him giving back to the children of our community and that inspired me. I became a volunteer at the camp.

Then another friend, Regi Ratliff, started Eternal Light Community Services, which provides programs to help youth reach their full potential. He asked me one day to mentor a young lady that was appointed to him through the court system.Then two other friends, Senator Kim Lightford and VaLarie Humphrey, who also had a mentoring program, began to engage heavily in our community, so I began supporting their efforts as well. 

I reached a point where volunteering for other organizations wasn’t enough. I decided to dive in myself. So I went back to my high school, Proviso East, which is in the city of Maywood, about 15 minutes west of Chicago and established a mentoring program there. My team met with 40 young men after school every Tuesday. In that program, we invited alumni to come back and share their own experiences growing up in Maywood–what challenges they faced, how they overcame them, and what they were doing now. 

It quickly became apparent that if we wanted to really see change in the students, then we would have to help the families, too. That’s when we started our nonprofit,  Best of Proviso Township. Our mission is to increase the quality of life for students, families and the community as a whole. 

Healthy eating is a problem, so we try to bring in nutritional resources. We’ve also encouraged youth sports and fitness. Last year we experienced three suicides within six months. So we started door-to-door wellness checks, and we held a town hall meeting about mental health and brought in resources. In December we had a big fire that destroyed two businesses and displaced five families. We rallied the community and organized fundraising efforts. Neighbors came forward to provide food and furniture and everyone pitched in to clean up. 

Before COVID-19 hit, we were already considering starting a free food distribution because there are so many families who are food insecure. Then the virus hit, and it became evident that we needed it immediately. So we formed the Proviso Food and Resources Coalition in cooperation with God’s Heritage Ministries, Impact Church, @The Firehouse Dream, and Next Generation Church. We began providing food two or three times a week. Not just for Maywood, but for five or six villages within our township. Neighbors helping neighbors–taking care of each other.

We never turn anyone down. If you need food, we’ll give it to you. We created a drive-through system where you just drive up and we put a bag of groceries in your trunk. We soon discovered, though, that some of the families didn’t have vehicles and some of the seniors didn’t have the ability to come pick up the food. So we established a delivery system. On Saturdays, we’d receive 10,000 pounds of food, and then volunteers would deliver about 500 bags of groceries to families and seniors in need.

We were making it through the coronavirus and even got a five or ten-minute “happiness break” with Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” coming out. Then the Ahmaud Arbery, Amy Cooper, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd incidents happened. 

Many of our young men can get hot-headed. I understand. I grew up just around the corner from where Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton Sr. lived in Maywood, Illinois. As I got older, I learned about how he was willing to put his life in danger in order to speak against injustice and champion the community. His commitment to the people of the community was remarkable. As a youth, I experienced my own stories of being stopped and harassed by police. I remember feeling that anger, too. But what I most admire in the life of Chairman Fred Hampton is what he did to help our community. He started a feeding program for kids. He made healthcare accessible to people who couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. The tragedy of his life is that he was taken too young–at the age of 21. And sadly,  the reforms he brought to Maywood stopped when he died.

So my generation did not get to benefit from all of the progress he had made. 

A few days ago I was talking to one of the young men who I mentor..a nice young man…a respectful, churchgoing kid. But he was feeling angry. And he told me, “I’m ready to die!”

That hurt my heart. That’s not the answer. I’d take a living, 90-something-year-old like Chairman Fred Hampton, making positive changes, than a young martyr whose life is snuffed out too soon.

My message to young black kids is this: We don’t need you to DIE! We need you to LIVE!!! The world needs your brilliance. The world needs those unique qualities that only you can give…the purpose and power and beauty that you were given when you were wonderfully made in your mother’s womb. 

God pieced you together…just the way you are…then carefully selected the exact shade of skin to wrap you in–the color that would most gloriously display his masterpiece–and then he stood back and said, “Now that’s GOOD!” 

So don’t go out and get yourself killed. Dying is not part of the equation. You have a bright future and we want to celebrate you for life.

Grow up to be the parents and business leaders and doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs and civil servants that our society needs. Grow up to sit on the boards and write groundbreaking policies and speak up on behalf of the oppressed and change the world! Grow up to be the President of the United States! 

And as you are growing, my promise to you is that I will fight for you. Men like me, who see in you GREAT value and GREAT promise are going to circle the wagons. All that we do…all that we have to give…is for you. We’ll lock arms and face out to protect you because we know how precious you are. 

So I’m excited! I’m hopeful! God is the one who breathed life in you, and He put great value inside of you. No one can take that away. You are a treasure. And you’re going to change the world. And my generation is going to be there to love you and support you and cheer you on as you do. Because we’re proud of you and believe in you.

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