Sometimes, Richard "Rico" White says, parents get so strung out and desperate that they push their kids to join gangs to guarantee a supply of drugs. The kids go along, White says, but most don't want any part of the gang life.
That's where he comes in.
He'll catch wind of a boy or a girl in trouble — someone who joined a gang but now wants out — and he'll negotiate deals with a gang leader allowing them to leave. White, who is 44, developed a talent for this several years ago.
He's the new operator of the Hollywood Diner in downtown Baltimore. I went there the other day to meet White and sample his grits. When I asked about his past, he mentioned his training in food services, working for a kosher caterer and running a carryout in Park Heights, where he grew up.
Then he mentioned his ministry — helping young people in trouble.
Turns out, he's done a lot of that over the last two decades, and in the most daunting circumstances.
By now, White estimates, dozens of young people — teenagers mostly, and mostly boys — have been released from gangs in Baltimore with his help. He's also taken his ministry to Carroll and Harford counties, the latter following the fatal shooting in 2004 of a 37-year-old cabdriver (and the father of nine children) by a member of a gang that had settled into the Edgewood area.
White has done this, without bragging and with only limited recognition — from a Harford County church in 2005 and the Greater Baltimore Urban League in 2003 — for his work with kids.
Officer Melvin Hill, who works in the Northern District, says White is "widely respected" for his work with kids. He's one of the rare individuals, Hill says, who has street credibility because he "grew up and crossed over." That makes him OG — "original gangsta" — experienced in street life and able to talk sense to younger men.
White has a new definition of OG: "only God," as in, "Only God saved me. I am alive to save lives. ...
"My ghetto past is valid. That means I get some respect for my past. I know how I was when I was in the streets, when I was dealing drugs.
"The young men and young women who get involved with gangs, they don't really want to do that, most of them. They're lonely; they don't have a family. They're afraid. Some join for their own protection from the gang itself. ... And some of them grew up with parents who pushed them to join."
As he tells it, it was his father's death in 1994 that turned White from selling drugs toward saving kids.
His father, who struggled with alcoholism, slipped out of sobriety one night and ended up the victim of a carjacking and fatal shooting. "I didn't want to end up like my dad," White says. "Up and down, up and down. Doing good, then doing bad."
He chose good and he chose God. He was ordained a Christian minister through Destiny International Ministries. He worked in food services, and he's been a caterer for a decade. He briefly operated Thomasino's — that's his middle name — a pizza shop in Park Heights. Last year he struck a deal with the city to take over the Hollywood Diner, famously the principal set for Barry Levinson's 1982 film "Diner."
While the diner consumes most of his time now, White is not far removed from the gang intervention work.
Last October, he says, he helped a boy out of a desperate situation.
"I literally had to go where this young man was," he says. "They were about to shoot him, and the other people who were in his house who were gang-affiliated. I had to broker a deal just for them to get out of the house. ... That's one of the things I feel good about."
Often, White says, the kids who want out are the gangs' weakest links — the ones who might break under pressure — and that's the convincing message he carries to the leadership.
White says he only helps kids who agree to stay out of gangs and go back to school. Not all succeed — a young man White got out of a gang went back to slinging drugs. "I'm sorry to say he's not living anymore."
The hope now, he says, is to intervene in the lives of young people in a different way — in the kitchen at the diner on Saratoga Street.
He's providing on-the-job food-service training for a handful of young people referred to him from nonprofits dedicated to helping at-risk kids get on a good path. White intends to pour half the profits from the Hollywood Diner back into the training program. He rolled out his new menu Monday, and the grits are just fine.