West Texas oilman is unlikely angel for West Baltimore youth center

Chris Hicks was lying in bed flipping through the television channels one night last December when he came across a program shot in Baltimore.

The program, an episode of the Viceland series "Payday," featured footage of children taking pictures and playing video games at Kids Safe Zone, the after-school haven for students in the violent and impoverished West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester.

Hicks, a 35-year-old wildcatter from wide-open Mason County, a churchgoing, cowboy boot-wearing, married father of two, was "intrigued and overwhelmed."

He had never been to Baltimore. Didn't know anyone there. But his family had been devastated by a recent loss. And when he saw the children, he says, he felt God working on his heart.

The next morning, he tapped out an email to Kids Safe Zone founder Ericka Alston-Buck.

"I want to help," he wrote in the subject line. He told Alston-Buck he wanted to send some money so the children could have a "wonderful and unforgettable Christmas."

Alston-Buck was sitting at her desk at Kids Safe Zone when she opened Hicks' email. It was, she says, "the weirdest I'd received in my life."

"It felt like one of those international scammers. I was like, 'Yeah, right.' But just in case" — she laughs — "I typed our address."

The next morning, the first check arrived: $10,000.

Months later, Alston-Buck still has trouble believing it.

"We've been literally begging for money," the 46-year-old activist says. "This doesn't happen to us."

But it keeps happening. Since December, Hicks has sent Kids Safe Zone checks totaling $120,000, making him the center's largest source of funding in its precarious second year of operation.

"He's the reason why we have a roof over our head," Alston-Buck says. "We were paying November's rent in December when we got his check."

As Alston-Buck looks for steady grant funding to keep the program going, Hicks says he plans to keep giving as long as he can.

"I work hard for my money," he says. "And if I can give back, I'm going to give back. ...

"It's not those kids' fault they don't have a place to go."

Along the way, the unlikely partners have developed what Hicks calls a "long-distance pen-pal" relationship. He calls her his "rock star." She calls him her "angel." Together, they're trying to make a difference in the lives of children in West Baltimore.

Kids Safe Zone is a 5,000-square-foot, one-story brick building attached to the old Frederick Douglass High School, home of the Penn North Community Resource Center. Alston-Buck is CEO of Penn North, a nonprofit that helps with addiction recovery and workforce development.

On a typical weekday afternoon, 100 or so children aged 5 to 17 play Xbox, watch movies, do homework, eat snacks and dinner, get mentored, practice meditative yoga, go on field trips.

Most of all, Alston-Buck says, they stay out of the war raging around them.

In the two years since Freddie Gray was arrested a couple of blocks away, there have been more than 120 homicides in the one-mile radius around the Kids Safe Zone. Nearly 300 more people have been wounded. Children as young as 10 years old are recruited to serve in the drug gangs as lookouts or runners — entry-level positions in the gangs that battle for turf in the neighborhood.

Many of the children at the center have suffered the sudden, violent loss of someone close — a neighbor, a cousin, a brother, a father.

"These kids, when they hear any loud noise, they say, 'There's a shooting,'" Alston-Buck says. "This isn't a movie. This is real life for these children.

"People who don't live here don't understand why we exist. The Kids Safe Zone exists because a safe zone was needed for children."

Munir Bahar, founder of the anti-violence 300 Men March, says Alston-Buck "filled a void in Sandtown-Winchester and proved how quickly things can be implemented."

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis calls the Kids Safe Zone "fantastic and necessary," and describes Alston-Buck as "a beacon of hope."

"She is a true change agent for the city," he says.

Sixteen hundred miles from West Baltimore, Mason County, Texas — pop. 4,012 — is nearly all white. There's little more than four people per square mile. The principal economic activities are farming and ranching. Eighty-two percent of the voters last fall — Hicks included — cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

Mason City, the county seat where Hicks lives, has one blinking traffic light.

The county hasn't seen a homicide in 16 years. Local children go to tennis camps and take portraits among fields of bluebonnets and castilleja — the bright red flowering shoots known as Indian paintbrush.

The most excitement comes during Old Yeller Days, when the Mason County Beven Eckert Memorial Library gathers fans of the 1956 novel about a boy and his dog for re-enactments of frontier life, storytelling and a pet parade.

Hicks lives with his wife and two daughters in the three-bedroom house he bought when he came to Mason a decade ago. He uses an old flip phone; the windshield of his pickup truck is cracked.

The Hicks family — Chris, his wife, Emily, and their daughters Georgia, 6, and Graham, 3 — attend First United Methodist Church on Broad Street and give regularly to local causes: Bluebonnet Court Appointed Special Advocates, Steady Steps Daycare, church mission trips and community fundraisers.

Chris Hicks is modest about his success, and private about his finances. He lives comfortably — enough to invest in racehorses — but says he's not "some rich cowboy with a trust fund." He says he doesn't see the point in over-indulging, or in waiting until he's retired to give back.

Hicks grew up in Midland, the West Texas oil town where former Presidents George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush once lived. He played quarterback and linebacker at Midland High School, and worked summers at his dad's drill bit company and a local putt-putt golf course.

He was good enough at football to be recruited by Texas Tech University. He spent a year as a redshirt freshman before flunking out. He tattooed "Keep the faith" on his ankle, transferred to a community college in California to continue playing, and then returned to Lubbock to focus on school. He became the first in his family to graduate from college.

He majored in sports science, and planned to be a football coach. But like generations of Hickses before him, he was called by the adventure of wildcatting — exploring for oil and gas. Soon after graduation, he started a minerals exploration business, K9 Energy LLC, and a sand mining businesses, Erna Frac Sand LLC.

One recent afternoon, Hicks drove down a two-lane highway through Texas' Hill Country, the sun still soft as he passed a tractor and exchanged hand signs with the driver.

Hicks' truck is his principal office as he drives from job site to job site. He's placed pictures of his daughters on the dashboard. He sings along to Rihanna's "Love on the Brain," makes calls and takes calls — "Hola! Qué Pasa?"

He has a Texas flag on his cowboy boots, speaks with a Texan twang and used to participate in Thursday night calf roping. But Hicks also talks about how the rapper Tupac is G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). He is a huge fan of Gervonta Davis, a boxer from Sandtown, and loves to play baccarat in Las Vegas.

His colleague Reagan Bownds, a business development manager at K9 Energy who also played football at Texas Tech, jokes that Hicks is a "poser" cowboy. And very generous.

"One thing I notice riding around with him is that he'll often tip really well," Bownds says. "He's a very giving dude, but he doesn't like to flaunt it."

The first time Hicks came across a substantial amount of money was after college when he got lucky in Las Vegas playing blackjack. He immediately bought Emily, then a college sweetheart, an engagement ring, then drove six hours to the Texas panhandle to ask her father for his permission. That same night, after getting said approval, he drove another three hours to Lubbock to surprise her with a proposal.

Like Alston-Buck, he's not the type to spend months planning. He goes with his gut.

"You start pulling the layers of the onion, we are the same," Hicks says of how he and Alston-Buck approach life.

"She's not going to sit down and make a plan and wait for someone to come tell you her plan is OK. We dive in head-first."

It wasn't the television program that pulled him to the Kids Safe Zone, he explains. It was the feeling he got when he saw the children.

"You know when God puts something in your heart?" he asks.

As Hicks was flipping through the channels that December night, he says, he was reeling from a senseless loss. His niece — his sister's daughter — had died in October of a bacterial meningitis. She was one month shy of her first birthday.

"Overnight," he says, "our lives were flipped upside down."

Hicks tattooed her name, Mary Caroline Cowden, and pink butterflies on his chest.

His compulsion to give to Kids Safe Zone "was 100 percent spiritual," he says.

"Still to this day, it's something you can't explain unless you've had something like that overcome you like that."

Hicks still hasn't been to Baltimore.

Most of the children at the Kids Safe Zone come from Gilmor Homes, the public housing project where Gray hung out. They start life with tougher odds than most — life expectancy at birth in the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park area is nine years below the U.S. average. Children born into poverty in Baltimore have the lowest odds of escaping poverty in the nation, Harvard researchers reported in 2015.

Even for Alston-Buck, who grew up in West Baltimore, the environment is difficult to comprehend.

"Children walk from school to a corner store and they can buy any drug they want," she says. "They are playing in the street between teddy bear shrines and yellow crime tape."

The impetus for Kids Safe Zone was Gray's death. The 25-year-old spent part of his childhood on North Carey Street, a block from the center.

Gray was walking through the neighborhood on the morning of April 12, 2015, when he ran into three police officers on bicycle patrol.

What happened next remains in dispute. But Gray ultimately was arrested and loaded into a police van. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody, and died a week later.

His death fueled protests and demonstrations; on the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson.

Alston-Buck was a month into a new job as the public relations director for Penn North when the neighborhood exploded.

She came up with the idea for Kids Safe Zone, and opened the doors within five weeks. That first day, 40 children walked through the doors. The next week, the crowd had swelled to 160.

The steps of Alston-Buck's journey have been widely reported: Addicted to crack cocaine at a young age, she suffered homelessness, temporarily lost two children, saw her weight fall to 86 pounds.

With the help of Penn North, she kicked the addiction. She became the first in her family to earn a college degree — in public administration, from Sojourner-Douglass College — started a public relations firm, became a radio host, gave a TEDx Talk.

She was promoted to CEO of Penn North in December. Three of her four children help mentor the youngsters at Kids Safe Zone.

Like Hicks, Alston-Buck grew up wanting to become something other than what she became. In her case, it was Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey interviewed the eight-year-old Alston-Buck in 1978, when Winfrey was a reporter for WJZ and Alston-Buck had developed a local reputation as a prodigious young reader.

As with Hicks, her Plan B has landed her close to home. In her case, helping those she very much identifies with.

One recent day, she is deciding what to do with a 13-year-old boy. He has thrown the building's mailbox at a car, and has been cursing. Her staff is recommending she turn him over to police.

Alston-Buck asks around, and learns the boy's dad has just been shot, and is now in jail. She pulls the boy aside.

"I'm talking to you from a 13-year-old Ericka who didn't know where her father was," she says. "I know how you feel. It's easier for you to curse and be disrespectful than come and tell me you're sad."

She talks with the boy at length. Then she gives him a hug, and one of the medals she has earned for completing a marathon, to wear for the day.

She says she can see the vulnerability of children struggling through circumstances beyond their control. At a low point in her 20s, she says, she told her own children, "I'm going to get something to eat and be right back."

Then, she says, "hours turned into days." By the time she returned home, she says, her children were gone — staying with her parents.

Caring for children is one of the primary motivations behind Kids Safe Zone.

"We are the place where kids go when mom said she'll be right back and we know she's not coming back," she says. "I call myself an accidental activist."

Alston-Buck has won praise for her efforts.

"If I could clone Ericka and sprinkle her around city, this would be a much better city," state Del. Bilal Ali says.

She has drawn on her communications background to raise funds from a broad mix of social media drives, local government, businesses and individuals. Although she's raised cumulatively $500,000 since the center opened, including more than $100,000 from the Family League, Baltimore City's community funding arm, she's struggled to get consistent funding to cover her yearly operating budget of $325,000.

"Our problem is we don't fit into anyone's wheelhouse," she says. "Who else has a mission to 'stay alive?' "

She doesn't have experience writing grant proposals, and says institutions tend to require data that she doesn't yet have.

"This isn't an evidence-based program," she says. "But two years later, the same 100 kids are still coming. I've never gone to a funeral. Never had to convince kids to go back to school because they dropped out."

Hicks says he doesn't know a solution to all of Sandtown's problems.

"But I know it's not fair to the kids who don't have anywhere to go because it's out of their control," he says. "If there is a place for them to go and be a kid, why not help that cause?"

As other post-Freddie Gray efforts have faltered, Alston-Buck has grown more ambitious.

She has set up a family help center at Penn North to aid parents in getting a job and fighting eviction. In March, she opened a residential program for children and their mothers who are recovering from addiction.

For that program, she posted a furniture wish list on Facebook and sent a message to Hicks.

Hicks responded immediately, emailing his assistant, Maxine Martinez, and copying Alston-Buck: "Hey Max, check out this list and get Ericka everything on this list and use my Amex."

Back in Baltimore, Alston-Buck and her assistant, Essence Smith, read the message and screamed.

"Like, this can't be real!" Alston-Buck says. "Like, who is this guy?"

They worked with Martinez to pick out the furniture online. Martinez added items they had left off the list, such as cookware. Alston-Buck worked out a deal with the West Baltimore furniture store Price Busters for a discount, free delivery and setup for half of the furniture.

"Because of Chris Hicks, 12 moms and 18 children now have a home," Alston-Buck says. "None of this would have happened without him."

Back in Texas, Hicks stops for lunch at the Lazy Ladle, the kind of place that serves chili cheese fries and fried chicken buffets. He runs into his buddy Tyler Wright, who owns a local real estate company.

Wright is puzzled about why a reporter has come from Baltimore to follow his friend. Around town, Hicks has been quiet about his support for Kids Safe Zone.

When Tyler learns of Hicks' far-ranging philanthropy, he nudges his friend, playfully: "You know, we have a Boys and Girls Club here in Menard."

But when Wright hears about the homicides around Kids Safe Zone, he expresses disbelief.

"We let this happen in the United States?"

In February, Hicks organized a website to honor his niece. MC12.com is built around the concept of doing something good for others on the 12th of every month. Mary Caroline Cowden passed away on Oct. 12.

The idea began with his sister, Mary's mom. Erin Cowden had come to dread the 12th of every month. Eventually, she decided the only way "to get out of my own sorrow" was to do something out of the ordinary for someone else on that day.

Through her church, she started volunteering at a shelter for the homeless on Sundays.

The shelter was only five miles away from her home. Cowden had never before noticed it. It's an example of what she describes as her "opened eyes" after her daughter's death.

Since then, she says, her service at the shelter has brought her more comfort than almost anything else.

Word spread about what she was doing, and soon friends and family joined in — helping to carry groceries for the elderly, paying for someone's coffee, funding construction of a new water well in a village in Uganda.

Cowden says she didn't know the extent of her brother's donation. But she isn't surprised.

"He has a tug at the heart and doesn't question it," she says. "He wants something, goes after it, and it's done."

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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