On a day of warm winds and brilliant sun, Charles Spann faces 100 guests gathered on the old Baltimore City pier in East Baltimore to watch 13 young men and women graduate from Fresh Start, a job-training program for troubled youths.
Standing calmly on the makeshift stage, Mr. Spann is both a commanding role model for the beaming graduates and an object of fierce pride for the teachers and colleagues who have steered him to this moment.
Mr. Spann, as well, was once a kid in trouble. But today, he is speaking as a Fresh Start '92 graduate, and president of Tico Enterprises, a fledgling business founded a year ago by Mr. Spann and his classmates with their teachers' guidance.
"I came from a small block in Baltimore," Mr. Spann, 18, tells his audience. "I thought that was the whole world. Slowly, I found out there is a bigger world out there you can all take part in."
Mr. Spann's story stands sturdily on its own, as he wants it to. He bristles with indignation when lumped into the amorphous socio-economic group known as "inner-city youth."
But Mr. Spann's life, so far, can't help but speak for multitudes of other young people stuck, as he once was, in a rut of poverty and little opportunity.
"He is a living example of the fact that it doesn't matter how far down the road a youngster goes, if you work with him and find the right combination of things that means something to him, you're going to be changing his life," says Juvenile Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar.
At Fresh Start and a variety of other programs sponsored by the non-profit Living Classrooms Foundation, based in an Inner Harbor lighthouse, the goal is to change the lives of at-risk and disadvantaged children by teaching them hands-on skills and a sense of self worth. Staff and students work together in a number of settings, including three historic ships, the Living Classrooms Maritime Institute and a llama farm. At the Fresh Start program, teen-agers are trained in marine industry fields such as boat carpentry, motor repair and boat handling.
In an interview, Mr. Spann slumps in the booth of an old boat, recycled as furniture in the conference center at the maritime institute on South Caroline Street, where Fresh Start operates.
Mr. Spann chews gum, sits up and looks a visitor directly in the eye as he replies to a question. Sometimes he gets up and strides around the room, while struggling to articulate painful thoughts.
"I don't have an option anymore, this is my life now," Mr. Spann says. "I realize this is my last opportunity and I'm going to hang on to it now while I have the chance. It's not any more slaps on the wrist or, 'Don't do this again,' you know."
He is tall, hefty and wears a cartoon T-shirt, baggy shorts, snow-white socks and sneakers. By turn talkative and guarded, Mr. Spann would rather discuss today than the past or his family. Reluctantly, he offers a minimal sketch of his old life.
'It was all I saw'
"That was the only thing I saw," Mr. Spann says about his days as a drug dealer. "I mean, guys were there in the neighborhood for the money, jewelry, good cars and nice clothes. They were on the streets all the time. . . . It was all I saw. They were the successful people to me."
It was not unusual for Mr. Spann to earn several thousand dollars a week from his trade. When he was a 15-year-old freshman at Edmondson High School, it all collapsed. Mr. Spann was charged with multiple drug offenses and sent to the Charles Hickey School correctional center.
The school's monotonous routine, and a staff that he says was largely indifferent gave Mr. Spann no cause for redemption. For the two years he was there, the same thought coursed through his head: "I can't wait to be home and sell some more, make some more money . . ."
At Hickey, Mr. Spann watched other residents leave and return, while he stayed put. "It was like I was dying, or I felt like I wanted to die," he says.
But Mr. Spann didn't cave in. It was his resistance to institutional despair that seized the attention of Emmett Edwards, a Department of Juvenile Services employee who helps to place Hickey residents in rehab programs.
"I saw he had a strong spirit and he wasn't broken, he was still clean-cut and holding himself up," Mr. Edwards says.
Mr. Spann's drug violations made him a hard sell, even to the forward-thinking Fresh Start staff. But Mr. Edwards persuaded them that Mr. Spann would make a good fit for their program.
At first, Mr. Spann was not impressed by Fresh Start. He had no interest in learning marketable maritime skills, how to work as part of a team or hashing out concerns with staff and other students.
"I hated it," he says. "I mean, it was just like another institution. I was like, 'I don't want to be here, I don't want to learn this, . . . I don't want some guy telling me what to do.' "
But the staff stuck behind Mr. Spann as he struggled. And something happened.
"It was the people and close-knittedness, it was like a little family," Mr. Spann says. "I came from inside of a little neighborhood where there weren't many white people around. Now I'm listening to this white guy, thinking about slavery. I got to know them [and thought], 'Why is it that I'm not supposed to like this guy?' "
Mr. Spann went to work. "After I stopped moaning and complaining, I realized there was something I could learn and do."
In Mr. Spann, the Fresh Start staff and others recognized a maturity and drive unusual in an adolescent. "His demeanor and ability to listen intently and really work hard at understanding is what people recognize," says Skip Maner, a friend and business colleague who owns the Body Shop cosmetics boutique in the Inner Harbor.
When he graduated from the nine-month Fresh Start program last year, Mr. Spann was named president of Tico Enterprises, a for-profit subsidiary of Living Classrooms. The company, propelled by loans and resources provided by Living Classrooms, grants and its own revenues, was designed as a laboratory where Fresh Start graduates could hone their vocational skills while learning about business and gaining a sense of empowerment.
Tico also guarantees a job to Fresh Start graduates willing to work hard. In addition to a $5 hourly salary, Tico employees split 90 percent of the profits with a Fresh Start scholarship fund, and put the remaining 10 percent in a cash reserve.
Learning from scratch
Under the guidance of the Living Classrooms staff and other mentors, Mr. Spann is learning from scratch how to run the business he leads.
"We wouldn't expect to take a third-grader and throw them in an eighth-grade reading level. It's an incremental thing," Mr. Maner says of Mr. Spann's education. "The first time he sat down to write a thank-you letter to someone, it took three days. Now he does three a day."
In little more than a year, Tico has built a floating dock for the Baltimore City Rowing Club and has restored and resold a number of donated boats. Through Hoka Hai enterprises, a company founded by Mr. Maner to market "environmentally and socially benevolent" products, Tico has sold thousands of "soapsavers" -- soap dishes, made from recycled wood -- to the Body Shop retail chain. With Hoka Hai's help, Tico is manufacturing and selling flower boxes to the Tweeds Catalog as well.
Mr. Spann has also raised $14,000 in contributions to Tico by selling "uncommon stock" at $1 per share with a minimum purchase of 50 shares. This summer, Tico expanded by 10 employees, and there are preliminary plans to establish a chemical-free hardwood business.
It has been a bracing year for Tico's chief. In April, Mr. Spann met President Clinton. In June, he flew to Canada to promote Tico to 250 Body Shop franchise owners in Canada. He appears occasionally on television news shows, plugging soapsavers and the Fresh Start philosophy.
Mr. Spann often dines with Mr. Maner and goes to the batting cage with his friend Mark A. Jankowski, a local lawyer who serves on Living Classrooms' board of trustees. On any given day at Fresh Start, Mr. Spann can be seen networking easily with bank executives and other potential Tico contributors.
Heady stuff for a quiet young man who until recently had no reason to expect more of the world than the allegiance of fellow drug dealers.
As he learned to trust those who have guided him, Mr. Spann discovered he was able to pass along his new sense of confidence and self-esteem. "I slowly came to realize it. . . . What I'm doing is helping other people. What I'm doing is making it easier for the next guy, and even if this doesn't go anywhere, I have the satisfaction of knowing I tried," he says.
Mr. Spann has also forced his new friends to think differently about the poor and disenfranchised. "One thing Charles has taught me, you drive through the streets, see people hanging out on corners and think, 'That's not my problem.' Then I met Charles and I realized there's plenty of people out there that . . . only need the opportunity [to overcome their environment,]" Mr. Jankowski says.
Mr. Spann has a long way to go. Mr. Edwards and others are urging him to attend college, for example, but he feels he is not quite ready.
"He still can't see the end of the whole dream yet," Mr. Edwards says. "He's starting to see it, and it's slow."
And sometimes, the dream looks a little dingy. It may be no more than the "opportunity to wake up in the morning, go to work, watch TV, go to sleep, go back to work," Mr. Edwards tells him.
Of this, Mr. Edwards is certain: Mr. Spann "got off the street . . . That's one thing I can be pretty confident of. It's a milestone for Charles, to get off the street."
"I can't imagine dying with a chalk line around my body," Mr. Spann says. "I don't want to be on the news. I hate to hear about young black guys getting killed. . . . They just say before the end of the news, 'It was suspected to be drug-related.' . . . I don't want people to think of me as just another drug dealer on the street."