Charles is critical of the group homes. He thinks they don't do enough to help kids get jobs when they leave. "To them," he says, "the kid is a check. Once he reaches 18, they want to replace him with someone else who can bring in another check.
"And if the kid's not work-ready, what's he going to do? As businessmen, we're trying to be role models and show the kids they don't have to sell dope to have a nice truck. You don't have to pimp; you just need to go out and work hard every day," says Charles, who says that the drug trade is what got him into trouble once upon a time. "I saw the money other guys were making and the things they were able to have. I wanted to have a car with the candy on it. I wanted to have rims and stereos, and the drug trade was the only way I could get it."
Rodney Smith says he did prison time for things he did with gangs. "I want to go on record," he says, "that joining a gang was the biggest mistake I've made in my life." It wasn't as though he sought gangs out, though. When he was young, his father bought a house in Skyline Hills, and that set him and his more affluent friends up for resentment. "After we graduated from high school, we started going to house parties. Because of the economics, we dressed different. When we pulled up to a party sometimes, guys would know we weren't from their part of town. They were stealing cars, and we were driving our parents' cars. And because we dressed better, the young ladies were attracted to us. Suddenly we found ourselves being escorted out the back door before being jumped for something we didn't know about," says Smith. So he built up solidarity with the kids in his own neighborhood, fighting together with them whenever one was attacked.
Smith says he found it painful to turn his life around because his old friends rejected him for "squaring up." Now, individually and in group meetings at the Gladiators gym, he exhorts dissatisfied gang members to change their environments and former foster-care kids to stand on their own. He calls his nonprofit Reach One, Teach One.
Stocking began gang life in his own neighborhood, hardly knowing it was happening. "Throwing rocks became breaking windows, became breaking into cars, became stealing stereos," he says. He thinks that former foster-care kids have already experienced an aspect of gang life. "They are used to having somebody in their face, ordering them what to do," says Stocking. "And the gang structure is a lot like the military. You've got to go through steps to get ranking. It's all about what you do for the gang. The gangs want to see what you're willing to do, not just what you say. But if you do it, they'll give you a lot of acceptance."
Stocking, Smith, and Charles want to give kids a different acceptance. They recall a former foster-care kid who came to Gladiators and beat up one of the workers there. The newcomer had to be thrown out. But he came back later to participate within the gym's guidelines. "We require every kid that comes in to go around and greet every other kid that's in the gym at that time," says Stocking. "It's to teach respect. And we don't just train the kids. We tell them we love them."