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News Maryland Baltimore City

Transforming cars and lives

One man got up before daybreak and took two buses. Another rode his bicycle more than six miles to the top of the hill in Halethorpe, where a nondescript garage harbored hope.

Five men from Baltimore with criminal convictions had been offered job training through Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit that takes dirty, discarded cars and turns them into valuable transportation for the poor. The men believe the training program will change their lives.

But transformations take time. Instructors thought they saw it happen with John Adams, who was in the preceding class of trainees learning to be vehicle detailers. He ended up stabbed to death on a West Baltimore sidewalk in April. An imposing 6-foot-2, Adams bristled with entitlement when he started the program, but as he progressed, his teachers watched him become a hard and generous worker on the cusp of starting his own detailing business.

The new men have heard Adams' story but are undeterred in their dreams.

"I don't have anywhere else to turn," La'keeth Blackmon said. "All my friends are dead or in prison. That's a reality living in Baltimore, running with the wrong crowd or not. Homicide is a way of life."

The detailing program illustrates the challenge of finding work for Baltimore's unemployed — officially 8.5 percent of the population. Many come from neighborhoods afflicted by violence, where conflict and quick cash from peddling drugs can upend the best intentions for long-term and legitimate careers.

"You don't want to take that risk, but you got to survive. You need money," said William Wyche, 34, who earned a detailing job after completing the program with Adams. "Trying to do the right thing is not as easy as people think."

The five men who started their training June 23 were referred by the Center for Urban Families. Before them, 36 men had enrolled at Vehicles for Change's Center for Automotive Careers Detailing Program since September, when the $100,000 operation began. Twenty completed it, and 14 found jobs afterward, program director Phil Holmes said.

The detail school used to run four days a week for four weeks but was cut back to two weeks this summer after instructors decided to limit the time the men were training and not earning money. Adams had been desperate for money just before he died, his friends say. His death prompted the change, as did a conversation Holmes had with a trainee who said he needed to sell half his food stamps to survive.

John Henry Adams, 35, had three kids and needed a job. The Mayor's Office of Employment Development referred him to Vehicles for Change. He arrived on Feb. 3 with a history of violence. Court records show he had been convicted twice of second-degree assault. He was released last fall after serving a nearly 15-year sentence for attempted first-degree murder.

Instructors could tell that he was ambitious as soon as he arrived. He asked more questions than his classmates and didn't lack confidence, said Richard Marshall, 37, a friend he met at Vehicles for Change.

But he viewed criticism as "disrespect" and chafed at having to clean cars during the unpaid training, Holmes said. He came from prison and was used to punishing insults with punches or threats, said Tyrone Carter, a 54-year-old program mentor who could relate, having been incarcerated for 16 years.

On the outside, Carter told him, you have to respect other opinions.

"He wanted to move a little quicker," Carter said. "I told him life wasn't moving like that right now."

As the weeks passed, Adams changed. He learned to apologize and didn't take things personally, said Shirome Owens, 31, his instructor. He sought out tips for cleaning the cars and gave them, too. He had support.

But when he left the garage each day, he was alone.

On the night that Adams graduated from training, he was with friends at a West Baltimore rowhouse in the 2400 block of Etting St. that police raided. Police found a cigar blunt and several bags of suspected heroin and cocaine in the home. Officers arrested Adams and four others. They charged him with seven criminal counts, including drug possession, conspiracy and intent to distribute drugs.

A bond company posted $3,500 bail, and Adams was free — but burdened with having to pay back bail and trying to prove to his parole officer that he didn't violate his parole. He told Holmes the drugs weren't his.

He continued to detail at the garage. Stressed, he snapped at a marketer who requested that all work stop for a few minutes so a film crew could film. Adams told her he couldn't afford to stop, Holmes recalled.

Holmes wanted to do everything he could to keep Adams out of prison, and he invited his parole officer to Vehicles for Change.

"Let her see John," he thought. "Show her what he can do and let her draw her own conclusions."

He scheduled the visit for the morning of April 9.

Adams never showed up. The parole officer left.

At noon Holmes received a call from her: Adams had been killed the night before.

Police had found him fatally stabbed outside an apartment complex across from a barbershop and the Royal Casino bar in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

He had been walking with a relative just before 7 p.m., when police said he ran into Tyrone Robert Smith, 43. According to a statement of charges filed by police, Smith told police he recognized Adams, and the two fought. Smith stabbed Adams nine times in the chest, back and hand, police said.

Smith was identified by a witness and court papers bearing his name that police said he dropped on the curb during the incident, the police report said. He was charged with first-degree murder and five other criminal counts. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Eighteen heroin gel caps were found in Adams' pockets, Baltimore police spokesman Detective Sgt. Jarron L. Jackson said.

Adams wanted to open his own detailing business, Holmes said, and he was close to making it happen.

"He wanted it, but some forces are stronger," Carter said.

'Tired of being unemployed'

Wash, spray, vacuum, squeegee, dry, shine.

"Get the gas door right?" instructor Eric Leonard, 48, asked the group. "Somebody make sure the gas door is cleaned out."

Every part of the car — engine, rims, interior — all use different cleaning products and color-coordinated cloths, he showed his class of five. Detailing is not just "washing cars," instructors told the group, but an avenue to many jobs in the auto industry.

Tyrone McNair once had a job tagging clothes before his employer found out about his criminal background, he said. His 5-foot-5 stature and easy smile give him the look of a man much younger than 31. He seemed like a graduate student, taking notes and watching full-time detailers during his training breaks. He wants to become a repossession man.

"I've always had cars taken from me, and I think that's good money," he said. "If I got my own business, no one can check my background."

Burnis Mitchell, 40, dreams of opening his own detailing business — maybe even employing his seven kids and grandchildren.

"I joined to better myself and get some sort of completion in my life," he said.

Thorough Cross, 40, has a name the instructors love. He has been around cars most of his life, and he dreams of fixing up cars that he could sell.

"I'm tired of being unemployed," he said.

La'keeth Blackmon, 40, dreams of opening a car wash.

Moryne Louden, 27, the youngest of the five, sees parallels between caring for a car and himself: How much pride do you want to put into it?

Rod Kraft, a national detailing trainer for Meguiar's, an international car-care product distributor, took the five into a conference room and explained how he turned detailing into a 37-year career.

Anyone have any questions? he asked.

Blackmon raised his pen. "What can we do to make ourselves more marketable in this business?" he asked.

Kraft, a man who worked in sales, designed kitchen cabinets and attended culinary school, told the class that he had to start detailing minivans for $50, but through hard work his jobs grew to include former NBA star Allen Iverson's Pontiac GTO. He said he detailed President George W. Bush's limousine and oversaw the buffing of President Barack Obama's motorcade before the second inauguration.

"Your reputation," he said, "is the advertisement."

On Monday, a wash bay was set up for the trainees' graduation ceremony. Framed certificates were stacked on a table, and lemonade and iced tea were served to family members.

"Each one of you have your own destiny in your hand," Kraft told them.

Two reformed felons who've turned their lives around were guest speakers. They told the men anyone can get a job, but passion is what it takes to keep it. The trainees are now considered "apprentices" at the garage and will be paid as much as $65 per car for Vehicles for Change Mondays through Thursday. On Fridays, the garage is open for them to bring in their own clients and develop their own businesses, Holmes said.

It's a temporary arrangement while the men wait for jobs. But program officials were quick to remind them that they have support at the garage. Vehicles for Change's bays are always open to them, and instructors and others are there to assist with applications, networking and the search.

Louden walked up to receive his certificate.

He embraced Leonard, his instructor. The men have been exemplary, Leonard noted, cleaning even when he's told them to go to lunch. Just once did he have to scold them when two showed up late.

A court-ordered ankle bracelet circled Louden's leg while a paper towel was bunched up in his hand to wipe his tears as he spoke to the small audience.

"I want to thank Vehicles for Change," Louden said, "because we still be changing."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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