Sean Smeeton was ready to throw in the towel.
For nearly 16 years, he had run the nonprofit Sylvan Beach Foundation, trying to get troubled young men on the right track, most recently through teaching them business skills by running ice cream shops.
But after a gang beating at one of the shops and with funding for nonprofits drying up, Smeeton started to become discouraged and wondered if he was really making a difference.
Then came a call earlier this year from Carroll Skipwith, a kid Smeeton had mentored when Skipwith was 12 years old but who ended up in jail for dealing drugs.
Skipwith was now 31, set to be released from his latest stint in prison and ready to turn his life around. He turned to his old mentor for help.
What Skipwith didn't know is that he would help Smeeton through a transition in his own life as well as being a catalyst for a new start for the Sylvan Beach Foundation.
"I was definitely questioning whether I should keep doing this," Smeeton said one recent morning, sitting outside the ice cream shop in Mount Washington. "I was really feeling like I was out there alone. Nobody was really fired up about the company and its mission."
Smeeton wants to create a community centered around the business, where people see the ice cream shop as a gathering spot. They'll have guest speakers and poetry readings. On Wednesday, Katie O'Malley, a Baltimore city judge and wife of Gov. Martin O'Malley, will speak at the shop in Mount Washington. They're also introducing new products, including ice cream sandwiches using cookies from popular bakery chain Cake Love.
Smeeton is also giving troubled adults like Skipwith a bigger role in the company. He said young people will be able to better relate to people like Skipwith because he's experienced the pressures of street life. The company's public relations director is Devon Brown, one of the boys in the documentary Boys of Baraka, which looked at disadvantaged youth from Baltimore studying at an experimental boarding school in Kenya. Michael Prokop, who was a homeless high school student when he came to the program, is operations manager for the Mount Washington shop.
"I wouldn't be where I am right now if it wasn't for this organization," Prokop, now 20, said. "They definitely gave me the push not to give up."
Skipwith works in all aspects of the business, from the factory to the retail shop. His official title is production manager, but Smeeton calls him "CEO in training."
Skipwith was a 12-year-old basketball talent who Smeeton, then a young CPA, met when he volunteered to coach Skipwith's basketball team at Francis Scott Key Middle School. Smeeton knew nothing about Skipwith's life as a drug dealer and was surprised later when he heard police had arrested the then-16-year-old.
The two lost touch. While in jail in 2002, Skipwith read an article about Smeeton's ice cream shop. Skipwith said he wanted to call his former mentor many times.
"I was hesitant about getting in contact because I had messed up for so long," Skipwith said. "I didn't want him to think I was calling just because I was in prison."
After holding a work release job at McDonald's for several months, Skipwith turned to Smeeton and Sylvan Beach.
Earlier this month the foundation broke ground on a new factory in Clipper Mill, with help from a $50,000 loan from the Abell Foundation, that it hopes will enable it to sell more wholesale to grocery stores and other retailers. It is rebranding the ice cream shop under a new name, Taharka Bros., named after a young kid that Smeeton once coached and who was shot in Baltimore. The company legally changed the name in 2008 but never had the money to market it.
In 2007, Sylvan Beach began to hit hard times. The company unknowingly took in a gang member, and a rival group went into the shop on West Preston Street and beat him. Smeeton and others were upstairs and shaken up when they saw what was happening. They closed the store on West Preston, which was also home to the headquarters.
As the economy slowed, funding also dried up. Smeeton put the headquarters up for sale and, in March, got $375,000 for the building.
With the new ice cream factory, Taharka Bros. will make pint-sized containers of ice cream to sell to more locations, and the facility gives them five times the ice cream-making capacity. It hopes to get contracts with local grocers and is working with the Baltimore City Public Schools and a local hotel to sell its ice cream.
The ice cream is already sold at restaurants including Roy's and City Cafe, and at an ice cream store in Belvedere Square in Northeast Baltimore, Smeeton said.
Smeeton hopes there are better times for Taharka Bros. and he sees Skipwith as a symbol of that hope.
"He's different, more mature now," Smeeton said. "I seriously think he can be a CEO one day."