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Baltimore man says he’s ‘a young Black brother pushing for greatness’ with help from a local anti-violence group

Edward Brooks, 25, right, who works as a truck assistant with Midtown Community Benefits District, talks with Amar Mukunda, assistant director for Roca Baltimore. Brooks has been with Roca, an anti-violence program since 2019. The program serves at risk young men in Baltimore using cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment trainings to steer them away from using violence as reaction to certain situations.
Edward Brooks, 25, right, who works as a truck assistant with Midtown Community Benefits District, talks with Amar Mukunda, assistant director for Roca Baltimore. Brooks has been with Roca, an anti-violence program since 2019. The program serves at risk young men in Baltimore using cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment trainings to steer them away from using violence as reaction to certain situations. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Since March, seven young Baltimore men — all of them on a list to get help from a local anti-violence group — were killed before they got the assistance they needed. But workers from Roca were able to reach and help about 180 other young men in the past year, according to the group’s annual report released Thursday.

The report details Roca’s efforts to show the men how to begin healing from life’s traumas, help them learn ways to control their emotions, and then connect them with jobs that could keep them on track.

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Roca, which means “rock” in Spanish, came to Baltimore two years ago after philanthropists, businesses and elected officials, frustrated that the city once again was experiencing more than 300 homicides a year, heard about the success the group had in Massachusetts.

The local group raised $17 million and Roca was given four years to try what some considered a radical approach using extensive outreach, behavior therapy and job training. With a $3 million budget for 2020 — 29% from city tax dollars — Roca is starting its third year in Baltimore.

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The nonprofit also recently used a $100,000 Everytown for Gun Safety grant to hire a special outreach worker. That person will hit the streets, make calls and send texts when the team learns one of the young men on its list might be in trouble or in danger of hurting someone.

Using referrals from city police, juvenile services, public defenders and others, Roca identifies the young men who need help. Workers then talk with them, work with them to help them understand that what they think, feel and do are three different things, so they can understand and consider their actions before they take them.

The state Department of Juvenile Services sees Roca as an “essential” and a “valuable partner” in reaching young people and having a positive impact on their lives and public safety, according to Betsy Fox Tolentino, the agency’s assistant secretary of community operations.

It’s not a fast fix. Roca reaches out to the men by showing up — repeatedly — on their doorsteps or calling their mothers, grandmothers and girlfriends.

Over the next year, Roca plans to work with at least 175 young men, increasing to 225 by the summer of 2022, according to the group. Right now, 135 young men are enrolled in the organization’s cognitive behavioral therapy and employment training programs. The goal was to serve 175 by July 1, but their efforts were hindered by the pandemic.

Here are more highlights about Roca.

Two men working to change their lives

DeAndre Chase, 23, Sandtown-Winchester, West Baltimore

Whenever he’s got a little free time, DeAndre Chase said he pulls out a stack of fliers for his business, “Dre’s Lawn Service,” and hangs them on light poles around the city.

DeAndre Chase, 23, shows off a flier for his landscaping business. Chase also works for Evergreen Landscape & Design Corp. He joined Roca in 2018 and engages in cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment training.
DeAndre Chase, 23, shows off a flier for his landscaping business. Chase also works for Evergreen Landscape & Design Corp. He joined Roca in 2018 and engages in cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment training. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Chase never thought he’d be cutting grass and giving up the $20,000 to $30,000 he said he used to make selling drugs over a long weekend.

“I was living a crazy life,” he said. “I was running around in the streets doing all kind of stuff, I won’t lie to you. But selling drugs was the number one thing.”

When Chase came home from jail in 2018 after he served time for gun possession, Roca’s outreach workers came to his house again and again (and again). What sold him on joining was their consistency, “the love they were showing me," he said.

"They were letting me know they were going to be here for the next four years.”

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Roca helped him get a job with Evergreen Landscape & Design Corp. Chase said he liked the landscaping work so he bought some of his own equipment and a gold Acura SUV to haul it.

Chase said Roca taught him that life was bigger than Gilmor Homes, where he was raised. His dream is to take some other young brothers from the projects and show them what he sees now.

“They taught me how to be a man,” Chase said. “I’m a young Black brother pushing for greatness.”

Edward Brooks, 25, grew up near McElderry Park, East Baltimore

Edward Brooks used to carry a gun. He said it made him feel safe. Then, he said, he decided he wanted to stay alive. He stopped carrying the gun. And joined Roca.

That was more than a year ago. He now has a job with the Midtown Community Benefits District beautifying neighborhoods.

Edward Brooks, 25, who works as a truck assistant with Midtown Community Benefits District, has been with the anti-violence program Roca since 2019. The program serves at-risk young men in Baltimore using cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment trainings to steer them away from using violence as reaction to certain situations.
Edward Brooks, 25, who works as a truck assistant with Midtown Community Benefits District, has been with the anti-violence program Roca since 2019. The program serves at-risk young men in Baltimore using cognitive behavioral therapy, education and employment trainings to steer them away from using violence as reaction to certain situations. (Kenneth K. Lam)

It’s the only work he’s done where people tell him he is appreciated, he said. His criminal background made it hard for him to find legitimate work without Roca’s help.

The therapy Brooks received at Roca helps. He said it’s given him someone to vent to about all the thoughts and fears he’s bottled up for so long. It’s helped him think about the consequences of his actions and to ask himself, “How are you feeling?"

Brooks said he has found a reason to live now that he has a 2-year-old daughter. He moved from East Baltimore to Essex and is working on getting his GED and driver’s license. Next, he wants to buy a house and make a career driving trucks.

“If I continue doing what I need to do, what I am supposed to do, can’t nothing stop me,” Brooks said. “I’ll continue to grow. Roca keeps you safe.”

By the numbers

In the last year, Roca has:

  • Sent outreach workers to knock on doors, called at-risk young men and their families and visited them 15,890 times.
  • Helped the young men work 11,396 hours on transitional jobs in the city.
  • Received 198 referrals from various agencies to work with Baltimore’s highest risk young men.

What’s next?

Roca founder and CEO Molly Baldwin said she is gravely concerned about how the pandemic and economic fallout might lock the young men her organization serves out of the job market.

That’s why Roca is working with them to get the skills, certifications and education credentials to help them better compete for jobs they can build their lives around.

Baldwin said it all starts with cognitive behavioral therapy, often administered on stoops and sidewalks around the city. Outreach workers — using cards with simple illustrations that show the difference between thinking, feeling and doing — help the young men break down the situations they find themselves in and decide how to respond.

“People can change,” Baldwin said. “Our brains can change.”

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