Young men like Dantrell Jelks remind Richard Blackmon Jr. of his son, who is serving time in federal prison for bank robbery. Which is why he treats every single young person he works with like one of his own.
“Every last one of the guys I’ve coached, I’ve treated them like they were him,” life coach Blackmon, 60, told the Tribune. “And the same thing that I do for them is what I’m going to do for him when he gets out.”
Jelks, 28, comes from a background of gun violence. He’ll tell you he grew up without a role model to teach him right from wrong. But around a year and a half ago, he got involved with the Youth Peace Center of Roseland and CRED Chicago, where he met Blackmon.
“Those times when I will be lost in my anger, no sense of direction, Mr. Blackmon would say I’m always able to come to him to get guidance and just to have somebody to talk to,” Jelks said. Most recently, he lost an 18-year-old cousin to gun violence.
Now, Jelks works as a case manager and recruiter, getting young men off the streets and into CRED Chicago’s violence prevention program.
Blackmon’s own career as a guide and an educator has been full of twists and turns. And the influence of one particular teacher in his life can be traced back to some of his earliest years.
Before his current job, Secretary of State Jesse White was Blackmon’s gym teacher at Schiller Elementary School in the 1960s — that’s how Blackmon found out about the Jesse White Tumblers and joined them at the age of 6.
Having White as an educator allowed Blackmon access to many opportunities he otherwise might not have had, he said.
“It was crazy, because even growing up in Cabrini back then, I didn’t realize how poor I was because we had access to everything, just like everybody else,” Blackmon said. “One time we went to the movies and we saw a Robin Hood movie. And we told Mr. White that we wanted to learn how to shoot bow and arrows. We wanted to do archery.”
White set up an arrangement for Blackmon and his classmates that turned a hallway in St. Bonaventure School into a mock archery range, so that they could learn to shoot arrows. Another time, they watched American tennis player Arthur Ashe playing on TV and decided they wanted to play tennis.
“We put up nets, and he got somebody to donate like 500 tennis rackets and 5,000 balls, and we all started playing tennis,” he said.
But life wasn’t without hardships for Blackmon. He grew up in emergency housing — which eventually turned into permanent housing — in the Cabrini-Green public housing complex after his family’s apartment on the West Side caught fire and one of his siblings died of smoke inhalation.
One time when he was 10, Blackmon came home to find his mother crying uncontrollably on the floor.
“What’s wrong?” he remembers asking her.
She told him she had been diagnosed with lupus and had been told she had, at most, 10 more years to live. That day, he realized that as the family’s oldest child, he’d have to start figuring out how to run the house — pay bills, wash clothes and get groceries.
After elementary school, Blackmon got into Lane Tech High School, a selective enrollment magnet school. There, he played basketball and football, was part of the marching band, playing the tuba, and enrolled in ROTC.
But, as his mother’s health deteriorated, his attentionwas diverted from school. His grade-point average suffered, even as he hoped for a Division I college scholarship.
It was during his junior year, in 1979, that he’d have to deal with something he’d been dreading for the prior seven years of his life: His mother died. He immediately went into “management mode,” he said, as he had to prepare the funeral and make sure his siblings had clothes to wear.
“As I got older, I began to understand what was going on with poverty and with the political systems and all that other stuff,” he said. “And my saving grace was that I was a great athlete. I was a good leader, and I was also a good student.”
Though he suffered an injury during the last football game of his senior year that he wouldn’t recover from in the next two years, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale offered him a football scholarship. He graduated from SIU in 1984 and started considering the possibility of going to law school.
“My mom had told everybody from the time I was three until she died that I was going to be a lawyer,” he said. “What I realized was that my mother saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
He eventually would get into the University of Notre Dame Law School, where he graduated 1987. A few years after a short foray into South Bend, Indiana, politics, he started substitute-teaching at the South Bend Community School Corp. That’s when something clicked.
“I knew that I had a gift as an educator,” he said. “And that was something that just never left me.”
He then returned to Chicago and, through a friend, became a scholarship coordinator for the Bright Knights — kids who lived in public housing and attended Providence St. Mel School in East Garfield Park.
“What happened at St. Mel was, I really found my love, which was education,” he said.
One day, Blackmon’s students at St. Mel came to him after having found out he had a law degree and asked him why he hadn’t taken the Illinois bar exam. Blackmontold them he was content where he was.
“Nah, you can’t do that,” he said his students told him. “You’re always talking to us about doing our best — you got to take the bar.”
After taking and passing the exam, Blackmon started working at Heller Financial as a staff attorney in its asset-based finance division.
One day, some two years and a half into his new job, he was sitting at home watching TV when he saw around 20 kids getting ushered out of an apartment on Chicago’s West Side after the Department of Children and Family Services got involved in a case of neglect.
“I went into work the next day and I resigned,” he said. “I couldn’t know this was happening and not do something about it.”
The next day, Blackmon walked over to juvenile court and signed up to be a juvenile court attorney. “That was a turning point for me,” he said. Shortly after, he was appointed to the African American family commission in the DCFS by then-Gov. Jim Edgar. He did that work for four years, and then pivoted once again.
But “my life isn’t a fairy tale,” he noted.
Blackmon was put on probation for two years after he got in trouble with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission because he had used some money from his attorney-client fund to support his family.
To try to repay what was lost, he began working with Options for People, a welfare-to-work program, and then with Employer & Employment Services, to help people transition out of public housing in Cabrini-Green. But being a “convicted felon,” he said, made it hard for him to earn enough, so his probation was extended to eight years.
“I was in the middle of this vicious loop, and I found my dream job: being an educator,” Blackmon said.
If he hadn’t been put on probation, he might still be practicing law and not doing what he’s doing — and what he loves doing — today, he said.
In 2009, he became a scholarship coordinator for Hyde Park Academy High School and a gig that was supposed to be temporary turned into his permanent job for a decade.
He has since prepared, by his calculations, hundreds — if not thousands — of students to take the ACT and SAT exams. Just a few weeks ago, two of his students scored a 30 and a 33 on the ACT, he said, proudly.
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For the last three years, Blackmon has been a life coach through the Youth Peace Center in Roseland. He has found his true passion in working with young men to help them turn their lives around.
“I’m basically a mentor, an adviser, a supporter and encourager, and sometimes I have to be a dad‚” he said. “It’s an incredible gift, working with young people.”
His experience as a teacher also kicks in when he has to help them learn to read better and do math, but he also serves as a guide for them when they have to show up to court if they get in trouble.
And his friendship with a certain Illinois secretary of state has allowed him to help the young men he coaches secure their driver’s licenses, as well.
In the future, Blackmon plans to open an elite college prep school in Roseland, named after his mother, Doris. For now, he’s just waiting eagerly for Dec. 21, when his son will return home from prison.
“It was a dual thing for me to take on this work,” Blackmon said. “It was certainly because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of these young people, but I also wanted to be prepared to deal with my own son and what he’s got to deal with when he’s released from that institution.”
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December 5, 2022 at 05:11AM