Vickroy: Giving gang members a future in Bedford Park
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy April 19, 2013 11:10PM
Updated: May 22, 2013 6:14AM
Quantrell “Q” Haywood has his sights set on a white 1966 Impala.
The two-door muscle car is the carrot that gets the former Chicago gangbanger into a uniform and onto the bus each morning. It’s a daily reminder to show up, work hard and abide by the law.
“If I keep at it, they’re going to give me that car,” Haywood, 22, said.
More important, if he keeps at it, he might just leave with a future.
Alex Levesque has every confidence that Haywood will earn the keys one day. In the meantime, he’s learning how to be reliable, work with people, show initiative and, oh yeah, grind with a plasma cutter.
“We’ve been working with him for more than a year now. He’s come a long way,” said Levesque, who runs Automotive Mentoring Group, a nonprofit in Bedford Park that Levesque says is designed to turn “boys into men.”
“Q was a self-professed armed robber before coming here,” he said. “His excuse was that this is what he had to do to take care of his family. We’re showing him a different way.”
Levesque started AMG in 2007 after he became fed up seeing so many young men just hanging around on Chicago street corners.
“For a year I said, ‘Somebody oughta do something,’” he recalled.
And then one day, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“It was a tender something, asking ‘What about you?’” he said. “The voice said, ‘You’re into cars. Young men are only interested in two things, girls and cars, so why not you?’”
Levesque grew up in New Orleans. After earning a degree in architecture from Tennessee State University, he headed to Chicago where he worked for an architectural firm before realizing he really wanted to work on cars.
He quit his job, took courses in automotive restoration and opened his first shop in 1993. He and his wife, Brenda, live in Chicago’s Woodlawn community.
After his epiphany, Levesque began driving one of his many classic cars up to those corners.
“While the guys looked the car over, I’d tell them my story. I’d say I can teach you how to work on these cars,” he said.
Some weren’t interested. But many, 300 so far, have been. There was William Slay, who’s now a Marine guarding the U.S. Embassy in South Africa. There was Odis Woods, who came in as a dropout and left a student accepted in the automotive technology program at Kennedy-King College in Chicago.
“This is not about cars,” Levesque insists. “It’s about turning shiftless, misguided boys into responsible, hard-working men. We want to make them responsible individuals, better husbands and better dads.”
In the process of introducing them to auto mechanics and body work, Levesque and his army of volunteers instill job-readiness skills — how to be on time, how to work with others and how to wear their pants in a non-offending way.
“Politicians say give ’em jobs, but how do you do that if they’re not job ready?” he said.
Chicago has roughly 100,000 gang members, the largest in the country, Levesque said. Many of these young men never venture beyond a four-block radius of their home, he said, and don’t know there’s a world out there that’s not driven by violence and crime.
“Society thinks we can ignore it or set up some basketball camps and that will solve the problem,” he said. “The current murder rate proves this does not work. You have to address it with something concrete.”
After being expelled from Chicago Vocational High School, Haywood went on to graduate from an alternative school. When he headed off to Langston University in Oklahoma, he had dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. Within weeks, he was back home, hanging with gang members, doing drugs and getting into trouble.
Then a former high school teacher told him about AMG.
“This is awesome. I love it here. I love cars, old school cars — Chevelles, Barracudas, Camaros, Impalas. I love everything about them, the bodies, the engine, the sounds they make,” he said.
“This keeps me out of trouble. Chicago is a messed-up place right now. There are no jobs. There’s a lot of violence,” Haywood said. “Somebody got shot near me the other day, the whole street was blocked off. I had to go get my mother who was at work.
“I feel safe here and that’s really rare. I know when I come here, I don’t have to look over my shoulder or watch my back.”
Haywood plans to enroll in the automotive program at Kennedy-King College next month. Levesque helped him land a job with A&D Property Management. Levesque would like more companies to give these guys jobs.
For the first time last Christmas, Levesque said, Haywood bought gifts for his three sons from money he earned on the job.
By all accounts, Haywood is embracing his new lifestyle — not just for the skills he’s learning but for the hope it’s instilling.
“I want to learn to work under the hood. I want to help people,” he said. “Now, it’s to the point that I can hear something in a car and tell what’s making that noise, what’s causing it. Someday I want to build my own car, to know how far I can push it.”
Levesque has applied for tax-exempt status for AMG, which now relies totally on donations.
“We go out and solicit customers,” he said. “We try to get corporate clients, you know that person who always wanted a ’69 Chevelle.”
Recently, Jody Redmann, president of the Rotary Club of Moraine Valley, of which Levesque is a member, donated a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am to the program.
“It was the first car my husband and I bought together,” Redmann said. “I hope they can work on it and maybe sell it to get some money for the program.”
Redmann calls Levesque’s work amazing, saying “Alex has dedicated his life to giving these kids a better future.”
Levesque accepts donations, which he says help to pay for uniforms, light bills, gas and gloves. Beyond the cars and equipment, he said there are other costs.
Some of the guys need bus fare. They all need lunch. And it costs money to take them to other garages and automotive schools so they can expand their knowledge and skills. He’s also planning a tour of Moraine Valley Community College’s automotive program.
The Automotive Mentoring Group is at 6522 Lavergne Ave., Bedford Park. For more information, visit the group on Facebook or call (773) 563-0034.