Tom Bowden entered his office at the Men of Valor Academy last Thursday afternoon and rested his brown fedora on his desk. He took a quick look into a mirror and decided to run a comb through his graying hair.
Bowden, or "Mr. B," as his clients at the academy call him, has served as assistant director at the Oakland program that helps parolees re-enter the straight world since the day it opened in 2001.
On this day, however, it was set to close.
"I'm sad," Bowden, 67, said as he palmed the sides of his 'do. "And I'm hurt."
Bowden, an ex-con with twenty years of sobriety under his belt, took another glance into the mirror and slid on a pair of sunglasses as if he were headed out to a funeral. He apologized for not dressing dapper, as he usually does, but he was in the midst of a move out.
"I've also got to find a new home for 58 ex-cons," he said. "Bear with me today."
Men of Valor opened on a simple premise: Take in parolees, teach them life skills, and end the vicious circle of crime, imprisonment, and recidivism. It couldn't have come at a better time. Back in 2001, Mayor Jerry Brown had pinned the blame for Oakland's escalating crime rate on the city's large population of parolees. So when Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel Church heeded the call, he found a wealth of political support that came backed by money. Then-Governor Gray Davis scraped up an initial grant of $650,000. "Government can't reach everyone," Davis said at a well-attended press conference. "We need programs like this to reach those who would otherwise fall between the cracks."
In turn, the small church on International Boulevard opened a dormitory where men lived and shuttled between daily working-skills classes -- construction, auto detailing -- and nightly meetings for life planning -- anger management, fatherhood, banking. After eighteen months, a Men of Valor graduate earned a certificate and was set off anew. Often, they'd secured jobs as laborers at construction sites or found an honest wage unloading crates at the Port of Oakland.
Tyrone Calvin Austin had hoped for that kind of fate when he enrolled in the academy this summer. He'd landed at Men of Valor fresh out of prison. The 39-year-old was born and raised in Oakland, not far from the church. His parents were heroin addicts and he grew up in a drug house, he said.
Until Austin attended the family and parenting classes at the academy, he hadn't added it all up, hadn't considered much how he was born into the lifestyle and how he'd passed it on. His fifteen-year-old son, Austin said, is currently serving a life sentence for murder. "This place has given me a life," he said. "It's taught me how to change myself and how I can change my kids."
Austin's cousin Ray Stewart also is enrolled. Once addicted to drugs and homeless, Stewart has five children with four women. When he got out of prison eight months ago, he found himself covering the familiar turf near International, returning to his familiar lifestyle.
Looking back now, Stewart said it seemed as though each time he got to thinking about changing his ways -- for however brief those moments might have been -- he'd cross paths with an academy graduate or come across a brochure advertising the program, or see the signage out front. After enough run-ins, he took it as a convincing sign, and knocked on the church's front door. "At that point, I didn't even speak to any of my children," he said. "I didn't know how to be a dad. Now, I come so far, I can communicate with them, show them I care."
One of Stewart's sons is currently in Santa Rita Jail on a carjacking charge. "I'd love to get him in here," Stewart said. "See how he can change it around, not continue to make those mistakes. I don't want him to get out and go right back in. I don't know if he can see that."
A few weeks ago, when Tom Bowden told the men that Men of Valor would close, Stewart got depressed. Then angry. Life is shaky when you're trying to get help, he said, "and I've come to depend on this place."
"I do want to become a productive member of society," Austin said, who was six months from graduating. "I wanna get what he got," he said of Mr. B. "He got a house and a clean life."
Bowden keeps the laminated news articles on his office desk: There's Don Perata shaking hands with Bishop Jackson; that's Gray Davis making a speech; and there's Arnold Schwarzenegger giving the men a pep-talk. Those guys are always around when the photographers are around.
But a few months ago, when the state funding was cut, the politicos were hard-pressed to help out. Jackson tried to rile up another round of funding, but he came back empty-handed. He sounded bitter about the abandonment. "We had lots of promises of financial support, lots of great words," he said in a press release. "But they didn't come through when it counted."
Just as he promised, Bowden spent his final days and hours in his office on the phone finding beds for his men. His colleagues in the tight-knit faith-based nonprofit world took in who they could: Pastor Stevens and his New Life program took five men. Pastor Walker and his Restored for Life accepted four more. Jack McCray at North Oakland Recovery made room, too. Ron Owens at Second Chance took some in as well.
Each phone call ended with a comment from Bowden, "God bless ya, brother."
In the end, Bowden had four men who still needed a place to go. He could have said, "Tough break, guys," and dumped them back onto the streets of Oakland. That's what the prison system does, anyhow.
But Tom Bowden knew these men weren't yet ready. So he decided to start his own program. He named it My Brother's Helper and, for the time being, will run it out of his own house. He already has a few ex-cons living with him, so what's four more, he reasoned? He's not sure where the money will come from.
"I don't want these men to return to a life of crime," Bowden said before he returned to his moving duties. "I had to set the example. I had to do something."
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