A probation supervisor came to Gary Henderson’s door on a mission—not to throw him back in jail, but to prevent him from becoming the next young New Havener shot to death.
New Haven officials have identified Henderson as among the 16 young people in town—who’ve shot people, been shot at, gone in and out of jail—most at risk of becoming involved in the ongoing gun-fueled violence that has prompted a new citywide campaign to stop the carnage.
That campaign brought Leonard Jahad, the state’s top New Haven probation supervisor, to Henderson’s the trim yellow porch on Dickerman Street Wednesday afternoon along with veteran street outreach worker Doug Bethea. They were part of a City Hall-organized crisis team dispatched to canvass neighborhoods to launch a “My Brother’s Keeper” program to reach the most endangered young people in trouble. The Harp administration, Board of Ed, and police department launched the canvass in the wake of two murders of New Haven teens in under two weeks.
At age 21, Henderson has already seen his best friend gunned down, done two stints in jail, and had himself been shot.
Yes, he was happy to see the visitors and spend 20 minutes talking about how to stay alive. Officials in recent weeks identified him to take part in the first phase of My Brother’s Keeper, an intense matching-up of adults with individual at-risk young people to help them turn their lives around. (Torrence Gamble Jr. had enlisted in that same effort right before his murder.) The second canvass, which drew 200 people Wednesday to a launch at the Elks Club on Webster Street, involved knocking more randomly on doors to find other at-risk youngsters to sign up.
The visit to Henderson’s door showed the immense challenges at-risk young people present—as well as the hopes for tackling the crisis.
Henderson saw death up close and far too early: that of his best friend Jajuana Cole back in 2006. She was only 13 at the time, he 14. He lived right across Dickerman Street from Jajuana, the young Wexler-Grant student who was caught in a crossfire while she sat in front of her home.
Henderson joshed Wednesday afternoon with “Dougie” Bethea, who has been a kind of father figure for years, he said, and with Jahad, his longtime probation officer. Then he spoke about Jajuana’s murder.
“I was 14 years old. I saw my best friend killed in front of me,” he said. “She was 13. I got in with the wrong crowd. I thought that was the only way to go.”
That way led to two stints in jail, one for possession of a gun, the other drug dealing. When he got out, he couldn’t find a job, even though he volunteered “all over the place,” he said.
One day he was riding his bike on Norton Street when he was was shot.
The bullet went into his behind. He and the older men joked about that. But it was no joke, and they all knew it.
“When he caught a hot one, he change his life around,” said Henderson’s uncle.
In 2012 he graduated from Hillhouse High School. “With honors,” Henderson added.
With the help of his grandmother, Dixwell activist Ruth Henderson (pictured), Gary enrolled and finished the carpentry training program of the city’s workforce initiative.
In his training he has helped build a greenhouse at the community garden on Ivy Street among other jobs, and is now launched on other projects.
Jahad said Henderson is far from out of the woods. If employers could look beyond the record, Jahad said, they’d see a sweet, good person who took wrong turns in part because his mother—struggling in her own life with drugs, jail, and probation—wasn’t there for him.
The pistol, the drug dealing—he did that because he was hungry, said Jahad.
That’s where My Brother’s Keeper steps in. So, to begin with, he won’t be hungry.
Jahad (pictured) and other organizers—including Bethea, city community services deputy Jackie James, top Dixwell cop Sgt. Sam Brown, top Edgewood cop Lt. Makeem Miller, Detective Lucille Roach—set the stage for My Brother’s Keeper several weeks ago when they sat with people aged 16-22 who had shot someone or had been shot at (or had their homes shot at) themselves.
What do you need? the organizers asked.
Jobs, the young people responded.
The conversation went deeper; Jahad noted that three recent homicide victims had had jobs.
What do you really need? the organizers pressed. to which the young people responded: Nobody does things with us anymore!
The My Brother’s Keeper program the organizers then developed incorporated all that feedback. It includes help with finding jobs and staying straight. It also includes group fishing and bowling trips.
“I think people are innately good,” said Jahad, who never carries a weapon in his work monitoring violent offenders. “You can work with the child,” he said, if you establish a relationship. The challenge now is establishing that relationship.
Will It Work?
Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins, a My Brother’s Keeper board member, has volunteered as Henderson’s mentor. He’s also working with him on resume writing and how he can better present himself to advance a career in carpentry or a similar field.
Another My Brother’s Keeper founder, Yale Police Sgt. Keith Pullen, is trying to arrange through one of his contacts for Henderson to get a job at Home Depot, where his carpentry know-how might be recognized.
Will it all work for Henderson? And for the approximately 200 other intended targets of the program, who, according to Jahad, are youngsters in fragile situations and need to be surrounded with in volunteer help?
Henderson offered an opinion: “You’ve got to be willing to help yourself [in order] to let other people help you.” My Brother’s Keeper will help those who are ready, he said.
He said Bethea, virtually a substitute father figure, has long been in his life, but he simply wasn’t willing to listen. (Bethea lost his own son to street violence.)
Absolutely nothing that people might have offered had they knock on the door would have made a difference, Henderson said, after Jajuana Cole was killed.
Bethea begged to differ. “You’ll find some who’ll resist it [but] others will” accept the help, he said.
Grandmother Ruth (pictured) differed with Bethea. “I think they’re going about it the wrong way. You have to stay on them. You have to give credit [in Gary’s case] to the family,” she said.
Gary Henderson said he was always doing repairs around the house for everyone, including his grandmother. “She still asks me to fix things.”
He said he had just ordered business cards to help promote more private carpentry jobs. He said Higgins is helping him arrange that.