Story by Jennifer Reed | Photography by Erik Kellar
“How well do you know Fort Myers?”
Cornelius Ritchie, who goes by CJ (the “J” for Joshua), climbs into the front seat of my Camry. He’s 18, a senior at Dunbar High School, and has lived in the neighborhood since he was 3. He tosses a backpack into the seat behind him and flashes one of his wide, trademark grins. I think about his question for a second. How well do I know Fort Myers? “Pretty well,” I respond. I’ve lived here since 1999 and have worked as a reporter for nearly all of that time.
But what CJ is really asking: How well do you know my Fort Myers? That’s an entirely different question, and the one I’ve turned to CJ and his friends to answer. Their city and mine are two very different places.
Mine starts on the tree-lined McGregor Boulevard, a road synonymous with the community’s founding families and the boundless opportunities that come with living in the “right” zip code. McGregor turns into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at the U.S. 41 overpass and takes you into the heart of Dunbar, a once proud black neighborhood suffocating under the weight of inner-city problems. There have been 30 homicides in Fort Myers between January 2015 and early December 2016, in addition to a rash of nonfatal shootings. Four of the latter took place on a single night in September 2015, an evening, ironically, that civic leaders had convened a meeting on reducing gun violence. Seven people were hit, including a 5- year-old and a 17-year-old.
Community leaders promised help, law enforcement officials formed a special task force, but the violence only seemed to magnify.
Over the ensuing months, a Dunbar High student would get shot after coming off the school bus. A troubled 17-year-old would be gunned down on Good Friday and his big brother targeted on Easter Sunday. A 23-year-old would lose his life at the Jones Walker Apartments—his death attributed to wrong place, wrong time. An 18-year-old’s body would be found in a park near a low-income apartment complex. A grandmother would be pierced by a stray bullet while playing cards in her living room.
Then, the unthinkable: A mass shooting would claim two teens and wound 18 others as they exited a nightclub. Tears would fall, outcries of “enough” ring out, but three weeks after those boys were buried, another 18-year-old would be murdered in his parked car. A targeted hit, police said.
“When stuff like that happens, I’m gonna be real. I’m not surprised anymore,” CJ told me. He’d been a friend of Stef’An Strawder, the high school senior killed at Club Blu.
For a year, CJ, his friend Jamesia Seawright, and their circle of family, friends and mentors acted as guides as I explored Dunbar’s plight. They showed me what it means to grow up amid poverty, violence, absent parents, peer pressure and the instability wrought by it all. And they showed me something else, too: how to fight back.
The world they revealed is a complicated one—more deeply troubled than I ever imagined, but in a way far stronger, too, at least among those who guided me. I’ll confess, at times the problems felt intractable. But by the end, I would come to believe that the key to initiating change is far more obvious than we think, and that if we put it into play, it could bring the two halves of the city together.
I first met CJ through Pickup the Ball, a relatively new group that uses basketball as a backdrop for teaching life lessons. He’s a small, spiky-haired kid with tattoos running up his arms. If you didn’t know better, you’d make all kinds of assumptions, which you would reject as you got to know him. CJ runs in the same circle as Jamesia, who is a year older than he is, and who likewise came into my life courtesy of a mentoring group. Meci, as she prefers to be called, is a quiet girl with remarkable resilience.
We’ll get to both of their stories, but first you have to understand the place that has shaped them. That’s why CJ is climbing into my car, sacrificing a school vacation day for a driving tour.
Like most outsiders, I had thought of Dunbar as one big neighborhood. But it turns out the area, which stretches across three census tracts and two zip codes, is carved into myriad smaller developments, housing projects and apartment complexes, which CJ is pointing out as we troll the streets. A couple of pitbulls rush to a chain-link fence at one residence. “See that down there, that’s another house where they sell drugs. That’s why they got the dogs there so they know who’s comin’ up,” he explains. I am careful not to slow down as we pass.
Residents don’t identify themselves as being from Dunbar as much as they do their own little pocket of Dunbar: The PJs (or projects), squat, nondescript duplexes along Edison Avenue; Habitat, a cluster of homes built by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity; Harlem Lakes, headquartered on troubled Davis Court; the Jones Walker Apartments; Renaissance Preserve, the comely reincarnation of the once dreary Michigan Court public housing; and more than a dozen others that CJ points out, with street-by-street commentary about safe areas and hot spots. He lives in Campbell Acres, a tucked-away development on Dunbar’s northern edge dubbed “The Chop.” When he was growing up, being a “Chop Boy” was like being part of a family. But some of the young men took that too far, too gang-like, and CJ has backed off from the neighborhood affiliation.
In some cases, young people identify themselves at an even more micro level, as belonging to a certain street. This used to make for healthy road-by-road rivalries on basketball courts and makeshift football fields. But today, in the toughest parts of Dunbar, the wrong turn can land you in hostile territory. This applies mostly to the boys, some of whom have become virtual shut-ins, but the girls have to be wary, too, lest the bullets intended for their boyfriends hit them instead. That’s what happened to 17-year-old Alexis Wilson in 2014. The neighborhood girls still cite her death.
“They don’t spare the person you with,” CJ says. “It’s harsh, but that’s how they think of it.” We’re passing a school bus stop where a teen from Harlem Lakes had been ambushed by a kid from Habitat. The bullet missed. In these neighborhoods, you need to pick your friends carefully. One 27-year-old man told me he was considered part of the “Old G,” the old generation, because he was neither dead nor in jail.
“The crazy part about it is the beef,” CJ says. “Harlem Lakes and Habitat have a problem with each other, but they right next to each other. There’s literally one road that divides them. They could be one neighborhood.”
Guns are everywhere. They’re bought, traded and shared illegally and shot with little regard for accuracy. That’s how you end up with dead grandmothers, dead teenagers and dead 5-year-olds like little Andrew Faust Jr., hit by a stray bullet in October 2014. People had hoped his death would trigger an awakening. Many just blamed his mother instead for keeping the wrong company.
CJ remembers the first time he held a gun. He was 14 and storing it for a friend.
“Dang!” he thought. “So this is what they kill people with. I remember I copped it back and I shot it in the air in the backyard. Dang! It was almost to where I liked that.”
He let go of the machismo before he got too attached, but refusal to wield a gun doesn’t make you safe from guns. Just a few nights before, CJ had gone to visit Erick and Olivia Walker, his friends and mentors, who live on the notoriously troubled Davis Court. He was riding in a black pickup, a vehicle that the neighborhood guys didn’t recognize. “You know, most shooters, they driving a truck,” CJ notes. The men across the street flashed metal. CJ and his godbrother quickly turned into the Walkers’ driveway, signaling they meant no trouble.
“You gotta play it cool. Don’t roll down your window. They think you gonna pull something out. Just play it cool,” CJ says.
The Walkers, who run a Christian mentoring program for at-risk teens, had become my friends, too, in the course of reporting. Somehow when I visit them, I can’t help but think that as a white woman, an outsider, I’m safer than the black young men who call this community home.
It was Olivia Walker who’d introduced me to Meci one evening. I have to confess: At that first meeting where she answered my questions with few words and little eye contact, I expected Meci would be a reluctant subject.
But some weeks later, she invites me to visit her at a triplex off of a tucked-away side street where her friend Diamond lives with her mother, her husband and her baby. Meci likes to hang out there so that she’s not alone in the home of her guardian, a relative who works multiple jobs to manage the bills. Over several visits, I notice lots of young people coming in and out of there, a safe and welcoming place for neighborhood teens.
Meci sinks into a well-worn sectional. She’s a lovely young woman, tall, slender, with facial features as strong as a fashion model. She dresses carefully—sometimes in jeans and T-shirts, sometimes in jersey-knit dresses or skirts, always modest, one way of rejecting the neighborhood’s street culture. She is recently engaged, and her fiancé, Tonio Bridley (one of CJ’s close friends), often remarks how beautiful she is. I get the feeling she doesn’t see it in herself—at least not yet. She makes her body small and rounds her shoulders. She admits to “anger and trust” issues. I never witnessed the anger ones, but the trust ones don’t surprise me, not after what she’s been through.
When you hear her story—or CJ’s—you have to understand that the details are individualized, but the themes hold true for lots of other young people. If you want to make a difference in Dunbar, you have to know what this generation is up against.
“We bounced around a lot,” she begins. She pauses to count up the number of schools she attended—three elementary, four middle, two high before she dropped out and then later enrolled in her current one, Coronado High School, where students can work independently on computerized modules to earn credit. When she talks about her many moves, she never says she “lives” anywhere—and neither does CJ or anyone else from her circle whom I’ve met. They all refer to home as where they “stay.” To me, “staying” implies a temporal state. To “live” somewhere is to be settled.
Her mother had died three years earlier, of an aneurysm, when Meci was just 16. Meci knows who her father is—they are friends on Facebook—but the relationship essentially ends there. He’d gone to jail when she was very young and gotten out when she was in the third grade.
“I do love my dad, but he just don’t know how to love on his daughters. With his son—he can take his son fishing or go to his son’s football games and stuff like that, but if I were to say, ‘Oh, can you come see me cheer at competition,’ he wouldn’t do that. And then he’s got a stepson that’s in college right now. He goes on trips to go see his football games. I do get jealous a lot,” she admits. She calls him a “typical black father.”
Meci has a full-blooded sister, who’s a year younger. Her mother had two more children, a boy and a girl, with a longtime boyfriend. Meci helped raise them after her mother’s death and even before it on the days when her mother was too consumed by her relationship drama to mind them. That’s what big sisters do in this neighborhood until they get sick of it, sick of their parents’ neglect, and look for love in the arms of neighborhood boys. Nearly all girls her age have babies, some more than one. Mothers are children; grandmothers barely in their 40s. Meci’s mom, who gave birth to her at 18, taught her daughters to steer clear of the boys. Meci heeded her advice. “I did not want to live the life that my mom did. I wasn’t gonna get pregnant at a young age—I made my mind up on that a long time ago.”
Meci’s family of “halves” isn’t unusual. The community brims with “brothers from other mothers,” and stepparents and cousins, which makes the violence there all the more tragic. Everyone, it seems, is somehow interrelated.
Meci suffered a period of abuse, by a grandmother who cared for her while her mother got established in Fort Myers. Child protective services intervened. “There was no talking. ... It was, ‘Come here, I’m gonna give you a beating.’” This is not uncommon in her world, either.
Her own mother broke that chain of physical abuse, but she had other shortcomings.
“We didn’t really have no help with homework,” Meci says. “There was no mom asking, ‘How was your day? How are you doing?’ We really didn’t have that. And that’s how it is for a lot of the kids in the neighborhood—they don’t come home to parents actually wondering what’s going on in school and how their days are going and everything.” In middle school she fought; in high school, she skipped. Eventually, her mom stopped picking up the phone when she saw the school’s number on her caller ID.
These are critical matters. Dunbar High School, which Meci attended before her mom’s death, boasts one of the nation’s most advanced high school technology programs, an International Baccalaureate curriculum for top scholars and a support program known as AVID for middle-of-the-road kids who have the potential to become college material.
But many of the kids coming up amid the neighborhood’s social conditions are struggling. In 2015-16, for example, 20 percent of Dunbar High sophomores scored at “satisfactory” levels on a state exam in English/Language Arts, compared to a district average of 46 percent and a state one of 50 percent. These are challenging tests, but the discrepancy between school and district average nonetheless shows the disadvantage wrought by poverty and broken homes.
Meci dropped out after her mother died and she was thrust into a mother’s role. Her younger brother and sister now live with their father, but she remains an important part of their upbringing. On the cusp of adulthood, she’s trying to finish her childhood obligations, but concentrating on school is hard.
“I know what I’m doing, (but) then I zone out and I don’t want to do it. There is just so much going through my mind. I just need a clear mind so I can get through it.”
Talking to Meci brought me back to a three-year stint I’d spent teaching in a Lee County high school. I remember too well my frustration facing roomfuls of teenagers, distracted and disinterested. At the time, I rebuked them for squandering their educations. Now, though, I wonder: How many of them were saddled with worries that outweighed their English IV assignments?
CJ has his Fort Myers and I have mine, but they intersect at Centennial Park, a bustling, grassy stretch of downtown that we both favor as a place to clear our heads or spend time with family.
“It’s so peaceful,” he says. We’re sitting at a picnic table overlooking the Caloosahatchee River. The location brings both comfort and sorrow. The park was a favorite hangout for him and a best friend, Tony J. Bridley, who was killed in a hit-and-run late one night in May 2015 as he was biking home from work. He was 23.
Tony wasn’t a brother, but the bond was as strong, CJ says. He’s close to all six Bridley kids (Meci’s fiancé, Tonio, is Tony’s twin) and to their father, Pastor Tony Bridley, but the younger Tony was his closest confidant.
“Once, around age 15, I said, ‘Bro, I wish we were really brothers.’ He hugged me and said, ‘We are brothers, there’s nothing that could make us closer,’” CJ remembers. “He was special. He would spend his last dollar just to see a smile on somebody’s face.”
Loss is an all-too-familiar narrative in this neighborhood. Outside of Dunbar, the dead are forgotten as quickly as the news cycle changes. Inside of it, memories and grief haunt the living.
CJ had moved in with a friend in Cape Coral for the first half of his senior year so that he could play football for Cape Coral High School. He says he’d been hyped-up, this receiver out of Dunbar’s athletic cauldron, and he looked forward to boosting the Seahawks’ 2015 season.
But Tony’s death shrouded him. New to the school, separated from his grandmother, apart from his friends, stifled by sadness, CJ emotionally withdrew.
“I just didn’t feel like talking,” he says. “People asked me if I was OK. I’d just tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ But inside I’m not fine, I’m really not good. I went through practices, you know, not talking, not showing emotion. At game time I’d try to get hyped up, but my brother’s on my mind while I’m in the game, and I think that affected me getting pumped up.”
Tony’s death wasn’t CJ’s first loss. His mother died when he was 8—of AIDS, a disease that I think my Fort Myers has largely forgotten but one that remains all too real in his. Memories of his mom make him smile—the Christmas morning that she surprised him with a new bike; the nights he spent fighting sleep so he could spend time with her after her late shifts.
He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom used to take him to visit a man in prison who CJ believed was his dad. He’s deceased now, too. He rarely sees his siblings, except for his oldest sister, who makes an effort to stay connected.
CJ’s grandmother took him in after his mother’s death. He speaks fondly of her, reminisces about boyhood escapades in “The Chop” and his love for his elementary school. But growing up without parents, especially without a dad, can be crippling. And that’s what is on his mind today.
It’s Feb. 3, National Signing Day—the day top high school athletes commit to the colleges that offer them athletic scholarships. I’d met lots of community activists stressing academics, but for many Dunbar families, sports still reign supreme.
“My whole life I’ve just been dreaming, just thinking that I can’t wait till my senior year, till signing day, to put on that hat. I got my family sitting in back of me, my friends sitting in back of me and I’m signing,” he says. His phone had been exploding with text messages all day and pictures of recruited friends and teammates blasting across social media. CJ wasn’t signing. He’s a small guy—just 5-foot-8, which makes him an unlikely recruit in the first place. The interest showed by a couple of schools had fizzled out, he says. But I wondered if he had reciprocated with adequate conviction, in his grief and growing doubt about his athletic future.
CJ retreated into silence during the school day, but now the thoughts gushed out.
“All my life, that’s what it’s been about. Football. Football. Football. I knew that’s my way out. That’s my way to go to college.” Part of him wished he had done more to round out his résumé, but he’d been a good ballplayer and when you’re an 18-year-old kid from a poor neighborhood, the gridiron seems like the most direct route to someplace else.
He doesn’t want pity or to assign blame; nevertheless, he can’t help but wonder if his chances would have been better if a parent had been by his side.
“You have to have people supporting you, getting you exposed. If you don’t, it’s going to be very hard for you to get scouted and to get offers,” he says. “Me, I kinda had to do everything on my own. ... It was getting stressful, very, very stressful.”
Graduation looms four months away, compounding anxiety. Other kids are waiting on college acceptance letters. CJ is waiting to retake the state test that determines whether he gets a high school diploma or a “certificate of completion,” the academic equivalent of a participation trophy. He’d sailed through the math portion but continued to struggle with the reading one. His plight is not an uncommon one. In 2015, more than 8,000 Florida seniors received a certificate of completion rather than a diploma, according to state records. I hate these tests. My daughters, avid readers, struggle with them, too—the phrasing of the questions, the ambiguity of the multiple-choice answers, the sometimes archaic passages chosen for students to interpret. The difference? They have college-educated parents who can coach them or pour resources into tutoring.
CJ sighs. “Sometimes I just wish I had a parent—‘Let’s study for this assignment. Let me sign you up for a tutor.’”
It’s hard for me to leave that afternoon, to head west on MLK, slip beneath the U.S. 41 overpass where the road turns into McGregor Boulevard and mommies like me fix dinner, fuss over homework and taxi kids to after-school activities.
The man CJ calls “dad” is the Rev. Tony Bridley, a lifelong Dunbar resident who knows all too well what kids like CJ and Meci face. Bridley earns an income driving a school bus, but his real passion is running the church he founded, See His Face Ministries. It operates out of a storefront on Dunbar’s western fringe, in the same plaza as last summer’s mass shooting. He seems to have a special touch with teenagers. CJ credits him with redirecting his attention from the streets to the church—an introduction to God that altered his trajectory.
I meet up with Bridley one morning on a break in between bus runs. CJ, I think, must have acquired some of his expressiveness from the pastor, who helped me understand the burden of history and the influence of environment.
“I used to say this as a youngster ... that we were caged in,” Bridley says. “The main streets for us were Fowler (north and south), Palm Beach Boulevard (east and west), Ortiz Avenue (north and south) and Hansen Street (east and west). My perception is we were kept in the yard, and anybody, any one of us who ventured out of the yard has problems. We have to stay in the yard.”
The “yard” becomes like a prison, he continues. “Tempers flare, you get aggravated with one another, you get frustrated, you can’t do what you want to do, you can’t get to where you want to go, so you start a fight. ... All these guys are struggling, trying to make it somewhere, trying to gain something but they can’t. So, who is stopping me from getting what I need? The closest person to me because that’s all I can see.”
Bridley offers this as explanation but not excuse—just like he doesn’t condone the parents who never show up at school, the guys who forgo work in favor of drugs, the public housing lifers who refuse to work toward independence.
Still, in this neighborhood, the past weighs heavily on the present in a way that someone like me, from white suburbia, can never fully understand.
“I still know elderly people in my family, friends of people in my family ... when they get around white people they are almost like in fear,” Bridley shrinks back in demonstration. “In our spiritual intellect, it’s transferring. People don’t believe this, but if your grandparents respond in a certain type of way to a certain situation, that travels from generation to generation to generation to generation.”
The end result? The sense of stuck.
Meci and I talk about this one afternoon. She sees people leave, maybe go as far as Lehigh, and then get “sucked” back in.
Now, in fairness, Dunbar has its share of upwardly mobile people who have earned degrees or started businesses and who choose to stay there. And it has people like Bridley and the Walkers who haven’t “made it” in a financial sense, but who pour spiritual wealth into their community.
Nevertheless, to a 19-year-old girl, the violence, the uncertainty make the prospect of growing a future there grim.
“Every morning when you wake up, you just scared that you just gonna have a text message or a missed phone call from a family member saying, ‘Oh, such-and-such has been shot or such-and-such died.’ It’s crazy,” Meci says. “It makes you want to stay in the house and not go out. I mean you gotta make sure you stay in touch with all your family members every day.”
Her cousin DJ, 23-year-old Darien DeMon Jackson, was struck by a bullet in March 2016, the unintended victim of a retaliatory hit. He had run, bleeding, into the home of her mother’s boyfriend where her little brother and sister live. She prays they hadn’t witnessed his collapse. She and Tonio had their own frightening brush about two years ago when bullets punctured the wall of Tonio’s living room, striking her sister’s ankle and whizzing inches away from Tonio’s temple. Two babies, cousins of hers, were lying on the couch. Another time, bullets meant for a man living next door came through the window of the bedroom Meci and her sister shared. The girls had been in the living room. “We can’t get out of it,” she says, resigned. “We don’t have no money.”
“Soon as I get my chance,” she says, “I’m gone.”
But she offers no escape plan. And as I got to know her and her fiancé better, I couldn’t help but think that Dunbar might be better off if more young people like her stayed.
Meci spends her Tuesday nights at the STARS Complex, a city-owned recreational center in Dunbar’s heart. That’s the meeting place for Diamonds in the Rough, the faith-based leadership program founded by Olivia Walker. Olivia had selected a handful of young women, including Meci, to serve as mentors to younger girls and in the process develop the self-esteem and confidence she knew many of them lacked. CJ and Tonio are generally found in an adjacent room assisting Olivia’s husband, Erick, with Transformers Club, the equivalent for young men.
“A lot of people say it’s a lost generation. It’s a generation that was left. It was left untaught,” Olivia explains one afternoon when I visit her and Erick. “There’s a lot of hurt, a lot of pain. And hurtin’ people hurt other people, so if I am hurtin’, all I can deposit on them is hurt: Shut up. You stupid. You ugly. You dumb. Oh my God, you can’t do nothin’ right.”
That’s what they’re trying to counteract. “We’re teaching these kids how to love, how to respect themselves, how to walk with dignity and have character, how to make a positive impact not only in their homes but in society,” she says.
There are more groups like this than you might expect, grassroots efforts to influence young lives through sports, academics, music and faith. Dunbar isn’t ignoring its own plight. It’s just that the forces for good are outnumbered and the victories achieved—a fight thwarted, a scholarship earned, a kid accepting Christ—don’t make headlines.
On this particular night, Olivia has turned over the meeting to a young woman named Emily, a preacher’s daughter and a faith ambassador in her own right. Emily has staged an activity using two of her sisters, vivacious adoptees from Uganda, to play a surgeon and a body to be “autopsied”—to see whether its feet walked a righteous path, its mind thought virtuous thoughts, its tongue spread gossip or goodwill.
Emily pauses when she reaches the heart. “Here’s the deal,” she says, her eyes tracing the circle of girls and women, “God only looks at the heart. Man looks at appearances. God looks at the heart.”
“You don’t have to live with those issues,” she concludes.
Meci’s head is bowed, reflective.
“I used to be in that crowd that wanted to do what everybody else was doin’,” she had admitted on another afternoon. “It didn’t do me no good.
“You doin’ what everybody likes to see. Fightin’. Arguin’. That’s what gets people hyped. Your name is gonna be out there. It’s gonna be big. Everybody is gonna want to hang out with you because they think you exciting. Somethin’ always gonna happen when you around them.”
Olivia had dedicated a month’s worth of meetings to a theme dubbed “Drama Slaughters.” It was needed, Meci says. Disputes start on Facebook and play out in school hallways and streets.
“You have to do something to get you on top,” Meci says. “If it’s ‘I got the best clothes in the school,’ there you go, you the most popular girl. If I can fight and no one can whup me, you the most popular girl. If I got all the latest hairdos and shoes. ... It ain’t about who got the best grades. It ain’t about that.”
Any woman can look back on her teen years and remember a social pecking order. Nevertheless, I’d seen plenty of other sub-cultures where kids competed to see whose resume boasted the most activities, the best after-school jobs, the highest grades, the most noteworthy athletic stats. That’s the adolescence I remember, and the world my children, growing up just a few miles away, are experiencing.
“Nobody wants to see each other do good. Everybody just wants to be tearing each other down,” Meci had told me.
After her mother died, Meci pulled away from the girls who’d embraced trouble. But there was a price: Girls accused her of adopting a “holier-than-thou” attitude. She quit friends; friends quit her. “There ain’t no such thing as, ‘I’m gonna try to be positive’ when my friends are still doin’ the same thing. It ain’t gonna happen.” She narrowed her social circle to peers who shared her feelings and adults who validated them.
CJ had to do the same. “I’m still cool with everyone,” he says. But he remembered the day he, too, chose to walk away. He was 15 and Tony Bridley, the pastor, had promised to give him a ride somewhere if CJ would attend church services the next morning. The preacher waited in his driveway until the reluctant boy dragged himself out.
“Whatever his message was, it was like he was talking to me. He wasn’t looking at me, it was just like that message was for me. I remember thinking, ‘You know what, I’m getting tired of running. I’m getting tired of faking like I was somebody else,’” CJ says. He maintained a relationship with the neighborhood guys, “but I had to choose my own path.”
CJ and other young men pay attention to positive messages like the ones offered at the Transformers Club.
It’s December, halfway through CJ’s senior year, and Ted Sottong, the founder of Pickup the Ball, is determined to keep his young charges occupied as school winds down for the holidays. Ted divides his energy between driving the teens to and from basketball courts—his way of steering them away from street trouble—and organizing guest lectures and volunteer projects designed to broaden their perspectives.
“We have to do things better. We have to do things different. But no one has taught them. It’s all part of the cycle,” Ted had told me one afternoon. Parents love their kids, but they are parenting the way they were parented, and the problems are growing. “I don’t know where the cycle started, but it’s gonna get worse and worse every generation, I think.”
The hookup culture with its casual sex and lack of commitment and teen mothers and unaccountable young fathers was troubling him. So, that night, Ted introduced the cultural antithesis: His parents, Peter and Melida, married 53 years. And lest the kids fail to connect to an older, white couple, Ted invited the African-American grandparents of one of his members, who affirmed the Sottongs’ secrets to staying married and added a few of their own.
This was a quiet meeting, held at Pastor Bridley’s church. About a dozen Pickup the Ball boys showed up. Meci and a few of her girlfriends slipped quietly into the back row. It’s not the kind of event that draws public attention, but it’s moments like this that have the potential to provoke change.
“We’re told to keep getting as many girls as we can get,” notes To’Quan, one of Bridley’s sons (who quickly stressed that’s the word on the streets—not in his household).
Do you guys see yourselves married? Ted asks.
“Nope,” says a 17-year-old who goes by his nickname, Rah Rah. “I know me.”
Another boy nods emphatically. Staying faithful, he says, is hard.
CJ has been listening intently all evening and suddenly declares: “It starts with us. Point blank. Period.”
Ted’s mother looks up. “You’re gonna break the cycle.”
I don’t catch CJ’s expression, but I imagine he’s grinning. The football scholarship had not materialized, but in its place CJ saw a different opportunity—to lead.
“I always say God saved me at the right time. I feel like if I had stayed the way I was it would have been worse. With the attitude I had, I either would have been dead or I would have been in prison,’” CJ had told me.
Meci and CJ and their friends believe something happened in their community—that the family structures the older generations held sacred had dissolved into a mess of divorce, one-night stands and surprise pregnancies that thrust parenthood onto people who were unprepared and unable to manage the babies. All of the other problems—the violence, crime, drugs, unemployment, academic failure—stem from that, from a “rotted root.”
“We don’t know how to overcome a lot of things because we didn’t see our parents overcoming things. That’s with us a lot. When something goes wrong we handle it in a negative way; we try to get out of it,” Meci explains.
Soon enough, CJ would finish high school. Meci would get married. And then their real test would come—after surviving a childhood in Lee County’s roughest neighborhood, what kind of adulthood could they create? What kind of difference would they make?
“Everybody knows about Jesus and Peter walking on water,” CJ says one afternoon, pulling, as he often does, from parable to make a point. “People don’t know how difficult that was to step off that boat and everyone is saying: ‘Don’t, just don’t.’”
“That’s where I’m at in my life. All these people saying this, saying that, sounds good, sounds convincing, but I just got to step out.”
Tonio and Meci Bridley celebrate their first Christmas together at their apartment.
In the bedroom of her friend’s place, Meci keeps a treasure: her floor-length, full-skirted wedding gown and the tulle veil that will trail down the aisle. She’s excited—if a little nervous—for her big day. Even before the ceremony, she’d start using her new last name, Bridley.
Marriage never comes with a playbook, but those lucky enough to be born into harmonious households certainly hold an advantage. Her fiancé Tonio’s parents had been together during his childhood, and he speaks admiringly about the role both played in creating an orderly household. Meci, on the other hand, grew up with a warped view of domesticity.
“(It was) one day, ‘Oh, I’m engaged, we’re gonna be so happy.’ And the next day, ‘Oh I hate him.’ That was my life growing up,” she says, describing the relationship between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. She has little memory of her birth father being in the picture. This is sadly common in Dunbar.
“It’s just a lot of weight on the oldest child’s shoulders. You have to keep everybody else in the house calm, you have to get the kids to stay in bed, so they can get up the next morning and go to school. I know multiple people that are going through the same situation I went through and even worse.”
This is how generational curses begin.
But now, she and her friends are getting ready to cross from adolescence to adulthood and inherit a community in crisis. Would they be able to make something of their lives? And, the bigger question, could they provoke change in the world around them?
They were determined to try.
"I can’t remember the last time somebody got married. It’s rare.” Tonio Bridley punctuates the last part of that statement in emphasis. His fiancée nods. We’re sitting at Tonio’s father’s small church a few weeks before their big day. Tonio is a high-energy guy, magnanimous, as outgoing as his soon-to-be wife is reserved. He’s quick to acknowledge his own past pursuits of girls. But as he started mentoring and working with his father and considering the benefits of his two-parent upbringing, Tonio began to understand the devastation wrought by broken households. “They lookin’ at this lady as mom and that lady as mom. They got a good relationship, and the mom says, ‘I love that kid,’ but you don’t love that kid like your own—let’s be honest.”
The older generations got married and stayed married, they say. These days, men like to keep what they call a “spare tire,” a secondary girl in case the primary one doesn’t work out. Women, in response, leave their ring fingers bare, a means of lessening the hurt and rejection.
Tonio and Meci’s marriage would be as much a statement to the community as a pledge to each other.
“This marriage is bigger than us,” Tonio says. “What we trying to do is set the example that you can be married and you can have that one person. You can love that one person and nobody else. It can happen.”
“It’s a mindset,” Tonio concludes.
Their insistence on community accountability is not an easy stance to take.
“Some people call me a racist black,” Meci admits later. “To me, everybody wants to play the blame game. Black people always want to blame the white folks for what’s going on in the community.” She ignores the external voices and focuses on shaping her own.
Meci and Tonio envision a relationship grounded in faith and traditional in gender role. She wants children eventually, but motherhood worries her.
“How will I act when I’m frustrated with my kids? How will I handle the bad times—not the good times, but the bad times? That’s what I think about and I worry about a lot.”
She and Tonio turned to their friends, the Walkers, for marital and parenting advice. The couple had built a solid marriage and blended family after surviving tumultuous childhoods and renouncing earlier choices that had put them on the wrong side of the law, their faith, their previous partners and their kids.
“I’m learning how to be quiet sometimes as a wife. My momma, I can see now how when they used to get into arguments, she would just keep going on. She was going to get her point across one way or another. Sometimes that’s exactly how I do it,” Meci admits. “Now when I do get angry, I know to just wait until when I’m calm.”
That’s how generational curses shatter.
I meet up with CJ about a week before graduation. He’s grinning as he recounts his senior prom—an “amazing” night—and the festivities marking high school’s end. I express my excitement for his upcoming commencement. CJ is politely appreciative, but his tone grows reflective.
“I look forward to it because I’m on to the next level, the next chapter, the next part of life. It’s up to me if I really want an education. Nobody’s gonna push me to say, ‘Hey go to school, go to school.’ It’s up to me: Do I really want to do that or go to work? There’s nothing wrong with both, but I do want to go to college.”
But his mind keeps circling back to the people he’d lost: his mother, who died when he was 8, and his godbrother, Tonio’s twin, who’d had tremendous influence before his death in a hit-and-run crash.
“I know everybody else at the graduation is going to take pictures with their moms and their dads and their families and things like that. It’s just gonna be me with people who have been in my life and who are important, but not my parents,” he says. His 19th birthday is approaching, too, which he views as the start of adulthood.
His post-graduation future is undetermined. “In my spirit, I’m not movin’. I’m standing still,” he says, waiting for a divine push onto the road he was meant to follow.
I respect his faith, but I can’t help but think that the inequities between communities are never more evident as they are at commencement, when some talented young people leap into well-defined and well-financed futures and others, equally talented, tiptoe into uncertainty.
CJ resolves to stay upbeat.
“I know there will be some bumpy roads and hard times, but that’s life. (God is) not gonna take me to a place where I’m stuck and he can’t get me out,” CJ says. “I’m finishing high school and I try not to worry about tomorrow. How can I help somebody today? How can I show the love of Christ today?”
If graduation was bittersweet, Tonio and Meci’s wedding was simply sweet—the bride both glamorous and girlish, the preacher making a crack about “no drama mamas and no baby daddies” for this couple.
In just a few weeks, CJ, Tonio and Meci would take a life-changing trip to Haiti with Ted and CityGate Ministries Youth Director Matt Richard and his wife. They would return inspired, and ready to attack the problems in their own community with missionary zeal. But on the weekend they came home, the neighborhood plunged into chaos, and the question about whether they could make a difference became more critical than ever.
CJ, Meci, Tonio and much of the Dunbar community awoke the morning of July 25, 2016, to horror. A crowd of tweens, teens and young adults exiting Club Blu, a nightclub on Dunbar’s outskirts, had been sprayed with bullets.
They felled Sean Archilles, just 14 years old. Tonio had coached him in a youth basketball team; CJ did so at the Transformers Club. They tore through 18-year-old Stef’An Strawder, a basketball standout who’d grown up playing hoops with CJ and the Bridley kids.
A “beef” between rival gangs reportedly had escalated; neither victim was the intended target. Another 18 young people suffered injuries that night.
Olivia Walker answers the phone that morning, raspy-voiced and dazed. In addition to the shock of losing the boys, she fretted about a girl from her mentoring group, hospitalized with bullet wounds.
“We’ve been up all night. I just don’t know what to think right now,” Olivia says.
She takes to Facebook later that morning, begging for outrage—the kind that erupts when a white cop shoots a black man.
“What happens when the smoke blows over? Do we really want change in our city?” she demands. “We want to march up and down, but what happens when you still got young kids broken and hurt and devastated and wounded? ... What happens when black people don’t matter to black people?”
A month later, 18-year-old Lawrence Lockley is shot to death while sitting in a parked car. Lawrence died the same day that police identified a 25-year-old man whose body had been dumped behind a RaceTrac. Four days later, a relative of that victim shot another man on a Dunbar street as children headed to school.
Of the 30 homicides in the city of Fort Myers between January 2015 and early December 2016, nine arrests have been made. The people who murdered Stef’An and Sean and Lawrence roam free. Eight of the Club Blu survivors withdrew their complaints, declining to pursue investigations.
Fear prevails over justice, and no one is talking.
A week after Club Blu, I meet up with Tonio, Meci and CJ. They are in grief but not in shock. When you grow up in Dunbar, you expect to lose people along the way.
“I remember I was taught in my family, if somebody hit you, you hit them back,” CJ muses. “Now you 17, and if somebody punk you, you’d better punk them back. If somebody shoot you, you better shoot back. It grows up. And that pride grows.”
“Hate,” adds Meci. “There’s just so much hate.”
They had just returned from the mission trip to Haiti.
“It was just so peaceful,” Meci reflects. “You see it in the lifestyle. ... The only thing we had to deal with was killin’ tarantulas.”
Both experiences—the mission trip and the mass shooting—galvanized them.
In Haiti, they’d been awed by the work of Pastor Mark Stockeland, whose organization empowers locals “to create lasting change in their community and take care of their country as only a native Haitian can.”
The trio wondered: Could Dunbar benefit from the same kind of hands-on, ever-present ministry they observed in Haiti? Could it heal from within?
“God gave me a revelation that he can do that in Dunbar,” Tonio says. “There are certain places that don’t have all the drugs, that don’t have all the killings, that God has rest his blessings on, and God gave me a revelation that he gonna do that here. I just wanna pour that out.”
He’d left a job at a youth organization in late spring, wanting time away for his wedding and the Haiti trip. He did not want another paid position, hoping instead to hurl himself into full-time volunteerism and pray that God would provide for his material needs.
“I want to be able to be there consistently, seven days a week, 24 hours, take the kids in,” Tonio says. “I want to be able to say, ‘Look, I know mommy and daddy aren’t here, but you still got people like us, you still got hope in the community.’”
His wife and his friend nod in agreement. “We live here,” says CJ. “This is us.”
Mentors like Pastor Tony Bridley try to keep kids occupied and off the streets.
They would quickly realize—if they hadn’t already—that change is not easy to enact. It’s an early September night at the STARS Complex, around the time of Meci’s 20th birthday, and Tonio is helping Ted run a forum between the community and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, part of Pickup the Ball’s ongoing relationship-building effort with deputies.
As the clock reaches the scheduled start time, there are more deputies in the room than there are residents. Even several Pickup members, playing basketball in the complex’s gym, had declined to join. The ballplayers told Meci that nothing would ever break the silence.
“Everybody cry on Facebook when somebody gets shot. Cry, cry, cry, but you don’t want to do nothing about it,” Tonio complains.
A few more young people trickle in, including Steve Walker, a high school student who’d been a close friend of Stef’An.
“In the neighborhood where Lawrence got shot yesterday, that’s where there needs to be relationships,” Steve says. He commends one officer who takes the time to toss a football with kids. “You gotta get where they live. You gotta go to the homes,” he says.
The deputies are understandably frustrated—by tonight’s lackluster attendance, by outreach efforts that had failed to yield leads. Capt. Carmine Marceno recounts a recent visit to a basketball court in which he was told any number of the young people there could shed light on Club Blu.
“If that’s the truth, we’ve got a major problem,” he says. “Look, as a community, we need to stand up.”
Reality—in the form of rent and bills—keeps Tonio from his dream of 24/7 ministry. For a while, he works a job tearing down pool cages, the kind of gig that pays bills while not dominating his life. Nevertheless, he has to let some of his involvement, like moderating the listening sessions with deputies, slide.
“I don’t ever lose hope,” Tonio says, uncharacteristically subdued one afternoon. “I just get tired. It’d be easier to do this if I had money.”
People from professional backgrounds—people like Ted—know how to tap business circles and elected leaders and nonprofit foundations when they have visions of community improvement. Meci and Tonio don’t have—or haven’t learned how to leverage—such connections. Once, I asked Olivia how the outside world might best assist those in Dunbar who want to make a difference. “Resources,” she said. Money, time, connections.
Toward the holidays, Tonio takes a less physically taxing job at a nursing home, and Meci lands a position at a friend’s beauty salon. Back in good spirits, Tonio says he’s holding on to that dream of full-time ministry, even as his immediate concern is providing for his family. “I’m trusting in God to open doors,” he says.
In the meantime, the young couple spends time assisting the church, mentoring, participating in community activities and developing a family foundation in honor of Tonio’s twin.
Lately, they’ve been thinking about the need to intervene early. Meci’s little brother and sister, who are 5 and 8, live with their father at the Jones Walker Apartments, a public housing project. The couple likes to spend time with them—and any other children they encounter.
“We want to check in on them: How’s your report card? How’s school?” Meci says. I can’t help but note the twist—she who was offered such little childhood supervision now wanting to whisper words of encouragement to neighborhood kids.
One Saturday afternoon, I tag along.
Residents call Jones Walker “The Shack.” The complex consists of drab, two-story concrete apartment buildings. Some windows have air conditioning units, others are cracked open to catch a muggy, mid-autumn breeze.
A gaggle of young children wave from a second-story landing as Tonio pulls in. He and Meci wave back and then fetch her little brother and sister from a first-floor unit overlooking a courtyard.
The yard’s dominant feature is a sad-looking set of swings sunk into a rocky space under blazing sun.
“Come on, watch a pro!” Tonio pumps his legs back and forth and leaps off the swing. TJ, the little boy, grins.
On a typical weekend, there are lots of kids out and about. Today, it’s quiet, the children chased away by a passing shower—and most likely, Meci says, by me.
“They probably think you DCF or a cop,” she explains.
I’ve purposely dressed down and kept my notebook out of sight, but my efforts make no difference. White women don’t visit The Shack.
Meci smiles watching her sister turn flips and her brother mimic her. The little girl grows bored with the grown-ups and dashes off, but her brother sticks close, chattering.
TJ spots a cruiser that has pulled into the parking lot.
“Hide!” he shouts. He ducks behind a utility box and tries to stash a toy gun in my bag.
“No, TJ,” Tonio corrects, “the police are good. They on our side.”
They know they’ll have to repeat that message—and others—time and again until it sticks. “They learnin’ all kinds of stuff,” Meci says. Her 23-year-old cousin had been killed there. On a previous visit, TJ and his friends had looked at Tonio’s broken car window and concluded, automatically (and incorrectly), that he’d been shot at.
Across the courtyard, a woman hollers at a boyfriend. A crowd gathers. “If they gonna fight, I’m out,” Meci murmurs. A few minutes later, we decide to go.
I’ll take five, you take five.
CJ divides a group of 10 younger boys between him and another young Transformers Club mentor for a soccer match one Tuesday night in early September, taking charge while director Erick Walker picks up group members who lack rides.
There’s no equipment, so CJ rounds up empty water bottles to mark boundaries, and the kids launch wholeheartedly into play.
CJ calls “time” about 15 minutes later, and the group—which has grown to about 20 boys and a handful of adult mentors—tromps into the building for pizza and conversation.
“Everybody put a hand out,” CJ instructs once they are seated. “Anybody you can reach, give a tap. Sometimes that’s what we need. Men, it’s so hard for us to express our feelings.”
He tells a funny story about an experience crossing a fast-moving stream in Haiti, drawing laughter. This is CJ at his best. His face brightens, his body energizes and he throws himself into his words—like a preacher or a motivational speaker or the rare classroom teacher who commands unwavering attention.
“Listen,” he says, turning serious again before ceding the floor to Erick, “we come here to transform minds.”
I had seen him at his lowest, too, at a Pickup the Ball meeting in late August. “I’m just keepin’ quiet,” he had said, keeping his head low and his eyes down.
I worried that for all of CJ’s public optimism, his childhood struggles might hold him back.
I’d seen him vacillate between getting excited about college and shelving the plans, stymied by finances and the need to re-take a state-mandated test and inch his score to the required threshold. He imagined a life of middle-class stability—a house, a career, an income that would allow him to support a family, as well as offer assistance to those in need. I wondered how he might get there. Toward the end of summer, he accepted a job printing T-shirts and other items at a business owned by a Pickup the Ball supporter. It wasn’t the kind of position that leveraged his oratory skills or launched a career, but it was an important start.
“The devil throws in my face every day: ‘Yeah, you could have been in Ohio, playin’ football, doin’ what you love.’ Daily, it gets in my mind, ‘Yeah, I could have.’ There could have been an easier route,” he says one October night. “But God—and he says it in a soft voice every time—says, ‘Things that come easy are not always good.’ I would rather be doing ministry than football. At the end of the day, football is gonna stop. ... But this will never stop for me.”
It would have been easier, he says, if he’d come from a family that had pursued higher education—or even if he had met his mentors at an earlier age. “But I can’t use that as an excuse.”
CJ pauses. “It hurts now. I got this broken heart now. I don’t have enough money now. I don’t have the things I need now, but I’m trustin’ in (God). I believe I’m gonna get through this.”
CJ taking time out of the game to speak to a child. Mentoring is important to him—a critical step in bettering the community.
What makes these kids different?” a Pickup the Ball board member asked me one chilly night last February, as the young people gathered for a kickball match with the deputies who were working to befriend them. Why hadn’t they succumbed to the pressures around them?
I could examine dozens of factors that allow one kid to be saved and another lost to the streets. Faith is among them. But tonight, I’m watching Ted joke around with the kids and thinking about Erick and Olivia’s heart-to-heart talks, and I realize that the biggest force is a simple one: adult intervention.
I’ve sat through countless civic meetings addressing the woes of impoverished communities. The proposals that emerge are often conventional: more activities, more youth centers, more jobs, more this and more that. I’m sure such spending does not hurt.
But in watching this group, I came to believe that time—of the sort that parents offer their own children—could be the greatest impetus for change. Or, as Erick whispered to me during one public forum, “You just gotta love them.”
In the year I’d spent dropping in on Meci and CJ and their circle of friends, I saw the monumental difference an adult can make in a young person’s life. I saw the quiet Meci organize and deliver a lesson at a Diamonds in the Rough meeting. I noticed, in private conversation, her answers become firmer, more resolute. I heard echoes of CJ’s mentors in some of his statements—the words of faith preached by Erick and by Tonio’s dad, Pastor Tony Bridley, or Ted’s lessons on goal-setting and navigating the world outside of Dunbar.
“My grandmother did the very best she could. But it took so many people to (instill) so many things to be who I am now,” CJ says.
Growth is not a linear, perfect process—I once saw an exhausted Olivia admonish disinterested kids, witnessed kids turn their backs on opportunities and watched Ted struggle to maintain discipline. But mentoring—at this level of intimacy—is like parenting, and all parents know their children will sometimes disappoint.
“We may not see a dramatic change in somebody, but what we say and what we teach somebody become part of who they are,” Ted tells me one afternoon last spring. “I want them to start thinking (beyond) what they’ve been told all of their lives. I know when I was growing up my parents told me I could be anything I want. I don’t think these kids were ever told that, and if they were, I don’t think they ever believed it.
“I want them to get back into the state where they can believe it. That’s where hope lies.”
Late last summer, CJ drops a big announcement. For years, he had felt uncomfortable with his last name, Ritchie, the name of his sister’s father, his mother’s husband at the time of his birth. He does not know his real father.
In the absence of a true identity, he decided he would create his own and choose a last name for himself.
“I thought I would pick ‘Williams’ or a common name,” he says. But as he reflected, he realized he’d been part of an extended family for years—ever since he befriended a group of brothers during grade school. He would come to call them his brothers and regard their parents as his own.
CJ Ritchie is now CJ Bridley.
“In all honesty, they will never know how thankful I am that God put that family in my life,” CJ says. He likes to say now he has multiple parents in the Bridleys and the Walkers and a trusted mentor in Ted.
“I can honestly say I feel complete now. I can get that out of my head.”
I sit next to Meci one September night at CityGate Ministries’ community center, where she and Tonio are helping Matt Richard with a party and worship session for children and teens. The lights are out, and the room illuminated by glowsticks and flashlights. Be the light, the kids are told. Fight their city’s darkness. Tonio is running up and down the volleyball court, shouting instructions and encouragement. Meci periodically glances back to check on the children in her charge.
She’d celebrated her wedding reception in that same room a few months before, crossing into womanhood, after a childhood largely adrift. I lean over to her and ask, “Did you ever think you’d be here, doing this?”
She shakes her head. Never.
She smiles one of her small smiles. “I am happier with the person I am now.”