Second in a series
His father was dead by the time DeVonne Fagan was 2.
By age 12, the boy was homeless, sleeping in abandoned vehicles and vacant buildings that litter Toledo’s central city. His only goal was to stay alive, he says.
Within a couple of years he was welcomed into the Folks gang. They made sure he had food, a place to sleep, and most important, they were the family he never had.
“I don’t believe that most people join gangs to get out of poverty; there’s no single reason,” the now 37-year-old Fagan said. “People are just looking for brotherly love.
“But I guess considering where I was, joining a gang did take me out of poverty. The problem is that meant killing your own brothers and sisters to get by.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Toledoans battle to reverse legacy of struggle, despair
For the past four years, Fagan and several other retired gang members have helped organize Dunkin 4 Donations, a charity basketball event that raises money to purchase and collect donated toys that are delivered on Christmas Eve to children in the central city who might not otherwise receive presents.
The purpose of the event is to call on central-city residents past and present to come together and help those struggling in their own community, said David Ross, the event’s co-founder. Thousands of donated toys were collected and distributed this year.
A one-day event might not seem like a big deal to some people, Mr. Ross admits. But he and other organizers see it as the first step toward addressing generational poverty by encouraging people to start taking responsibility for their own lives and be willing to help others in need.
This year’s Dunkin 4 Donations fund-raiser featured a charity basketball game including several former neighborhood residents, and local celebrities such as professional boxer Paul Parker, semipro football player Mike Chac, and Clemmye Owens, a freshman guard for Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. The event was held at the Frederick Douglass Center on Indiana Avenue on Dec. 22.
One of the goals, besides collecting toys for needy children, was to expose central-city youths to positive role models and show them they can be successful, Mr. Ross said.
Former gang member Dedra Brown, who helped organize this year’s event, said she hopes the event taught neighborhood youths a positive lesson. Dozens of children between the ages of 7 and 14 participated in basketball games during the charity event.
“Something like this gives kids something positive to do,” Ms. Brown said. “Maybe it will prevent them from getting involved in gangs. Instead they're learning the benefits of coming together to help as one.”
The lesson was not lost on Jerry Easter, 7, a second grader at Crissey Elementary School in Springfield Township, and Kataan Wyatt, 11, a sixth grader at Martin Luther King, Jr., Academy in Toledo. They were more concerned about how successful the event was, rather than if their teams won.
“This was a chance to raise money to buy Christmas toys for other kids in my neighborhood; and it was a lot of fun,” said Kataan, after his game was over.
Local musicians, singers, and disc jockeys also volunteered their services to entertain the crowd of about 500 people.
Mr. Ross and Tracy Haynes, who both grew up in Toledo’s central city, co-founded the event. Mr. Ross operates his own photography and video production company called HD Toledo. Mr. Haynes is a national recording artist. Damon Hogan, a local bail bondsman, sponsored the event the first two years.
“We just started calling our childhood friends, many of them were already doing their own thing,” Mr. Ross said. Many of their friends were former gang members and had served prison time for various gang-related crimes.
“The whole point of this is to show what we can accomplish when we come together as a community,” Mr. Ross said. “We need to do this more often. These gangs are out there showing their numbers every day.”
Sonya Harper-Williams, executive director of the Frederick Douglass Center, decided to donate the use of the center because she was so impressed with the group’s effort.
“This is an example of young people taking care of their own children in their own neighborhood,” she said.
Many of the retired gang members who participated in the charity event said they did so because they know what it’s like to live in poverty. They also know what it’s like not to have positive role models growing up, which led many of them into trouble.
Answering the need
Fagan was one of the first retired gang members to answer the call to help out with Dunkin 4 Donations. More residents in the central-city neighborhoods need to come forward and become role models for their own children, he said.
“I’ve been volunteering at the soup kitchen and other charity events in our neighborhood since I got out of prison,” he said. “What bothers me is that blacks don’t support blacks. At the soup kitchen, there were more white people supporting us than blacks.”
Mr. Fagan served 4½ years in prison for aggravated assault stemming from a 1997 shootout. A ninth-grade dropout, he used his time in prison to earn a GED and some college credits. Three years ago, he opened Pinnacle Auto Body in Toledo.
“I come from a single-parent home. I grew up on the streets,” he said. “But I got tired of the senseless killing.”
Retired Folk gang member Colinna Feemster, 40, volunteered to coach one of the youth basketball teams during the Dunkin 4 Donations charity event. But he was having so much fun that at times he appeared to forget which team he was coaching.
When youngsters from either team scored a point or made a valiant effort, Feemster would cheer them wildly.
“This is just my way of being part of something positive and giving back,” said Feemster, who once served five years in prison for a gang-related crime.
As a child he grew up in a four-bedroom house with his grandmother, mother, and seven aunts in the central city, he said. Not only did he live in poverty, he suffered from not having a male role model. “The gang leader was my father figure,” he said.
“I was in a negative way when I was younger. A lot of these kids don’t have fathers, so maybe they’ll see me here or out in the community and come up to me and talk. Sometimes all you need is someone to talk to.”
He’s been operating his own business, Uptown Clips and Design Barbershop, for the past eight years. But Feemster knows he’ll never totally escape poverty; that’s not his goal anymore.
“When I got out of prison, I knew that I needed to be a good role model for my children,” said Feemster, who has eight sons and two daughters. “I know I’ll be struggling financially all my life to provide for them, but that’s what a good father does. Someday their lives will be better than mine.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.