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San Francisco Educator Works to Keep Young People 'Alive and Free'

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This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

More than half of young black men in the United States do not finish high school. Many grow up without fathers and in neighborhoods with gangs, drugs and violence. Sixty percent of those who drop out of school have spent time in jail by the age of thirty-five.

Joe Marshall co-founded the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco, California, twenty-three years ago. Mr. Marshall tries to give boys -- and girls -- a safe refuge and a chance at a better future.

Every week, he has two basic messages for his young students: "Stop the violence" and "Don't do drugs."

Mr. Marshall spent twenty-five years as a teacher and administrator in San Francisco. He taught math in middle school and expected to see his best students go to college.

Joe Marshall celebrates the Omega Boys Club's 150th college graduate last October
Joe Marshall celebrates the Omega Boys Club's 150th college graduate last October

JOE MARSHALL: "I got a lot of horror stories and a lot of my former students ended up dead or in prison for selling drugs, being involved in gangs, girls ended up getting pregnant."

The Omega Boys Club serves more than four hundred young people every year. Two times a week, it offers after-school classes in math, reading, family and life skills, and college preparation.

In many ways, it serves as a kind of family. It provides teenagers with structure and support.

Joe Marshall has a doctorate in psychology. He sees gangs and violence as a disease that needs to be dealt with as a public health problem.

JOE MARSHALL: "That's what these young people get. They develop a street mentality. The big part is dealing with the emotional residue of anger, fear and pain that they develop because they got invested in this in the first place.

"Then we tell them to follow some new rules for living that will decrease their chances of ending up dead or in prison and increase their chances dramatically of staying alive and free."

The club represents the headquarters of what he calls the "alive and free movement." But his most effective way to spread his anti-violence message is through radio.

In nineteen ninety-one, Joe Marshall started "Street Soldiers," a weekly call-in show.

JOE MARSHALL: "OK, let's talk to line two. Line two. And this is--Is this Marlena? This ain't the Marlena I know."

MARLENA: "Yes Doctor Marshall, this is Marlena!"

JOE MARSHALL: “It is my Marlena!”

Marlena was one of the graduates of the Omega Boys Club.

JOE MARSHALL: "She's at Southern University right now, going into her third year. She talked about what she had learned the hard way and how we helped her learn that by coming to Omega, by listening to 'Street Soldiers,' and she said she had learned how to love herself."

The club provides guidance and financial assistance to help students stay in school. Over ninety percent of members who were accepted into college have graduated.

Twelve other American cities have copied the program. Joe Marshall has been invited to speak in Canada, Nigeria, South Africa and Thailand.

He turned sixty-three this year.

JOE MARSHALL: "I want to build an institution. I'm not going to be here forever, so my big thing is to make sure this goes on."

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. I’m Steve Ember.


Reported by JoAnn Mar for VOA's American Profiles