Juan Rivera, 39, is a former drug dealer who is now a Man Up! inc. volunteer. He talks to youngsters about violence in the community, takes kids to the park, does surveys and cleans parks and other areas of the neighborhood.
“When I was in prison I had to ask myself if that was really what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to live,” River says. “I’ve been a disaster to the neighborhood as a kid and adult. Now I need to put into the community what I helped to destroy.”
He says he wants to be a positive example for his nieces and nephews—and for his son, 13.
“What I told my son before I came home is if daddy comes home and continues doing the same thing I was doing, how can I say I love you? If I put myself in a position where I could be gone again, what does that do for him?”
So now Rivera proudly cleans his neighborhood and talks to boys who remind him of himself.
“It feels good. This organization gave me a whole different outlook. I love the feeling I get when I talk to the kids or clean a park. I look forward to getting up every morning to get to work.”
Melinda Perkins, a native East New Yorker, says Man Up! inc. has stood up for the community in many ways, even getting it a seat at the table with big developers with projects in their neighborhood.
“Man Up! inc. focuses on children, makes them see there’s a greater world, that where you live does not have to determine who you are. They get to the heart of the issue because they always have a multi-prong approach to issues. Here in this community, we face a number of issues that seem rooted in crime and violence. But there are other issues that lead to people acting out in that way.”
Perkins, who is also associate executive director for the nonprofit East NY Restoration LDC, says she and her three children are Man Up! inc. volunteers. She has twin girls, 19, and a son, 15 who attended Man Up! inc.’s after school program and now serve as junior members of the organization.
“They’ve all been through the MU training, which is excellent because they know how important it is to give back,” says Perkins, who notes that people feel safer just by the mere presence of Man Up! inc. volunteers in their t-shirts walking the neighborhood and talking to residents.
“We are the Marines in the community,” says Mitchell. “We go in further than the police department can. And we develop relationships with people the police department cannot.
The count of 367 is the longest time the neighborhood has experienced nonviolence and Mitchell says good, sound funding by the state has made a difference in what the activists have been able to do.
“We want to build community. The police can’t solve our problems. We are the frontline workers. We are the first responders.
“It takes everybody to make a neighborhood turn around, to make a neighborhood be better,” Mitchell says. “Now parents are talking more to their kids, teachers are willing to give beyond the call of duty, police officers are willing to help and the clergy is more involved in issues happening right around their churches.
“We know what peace feels like now. We know what it feels like to see community engaged in activities that make it prosper. We have a long ways to go, but we are on the right path.”