“Most of these kids don’t see positive male role models, brothers who are just out and about looking out for their well-being,” Watkins said as he strolled down E Street SE, piping up with his greeting to a trio of girls who were scurrying to J.C. Nalle Elementary School. The girls looked a little confused at first, then murmured a “Good morning” back.
“It’ll take them a little while to get used to us, but they’ll start asking us, ‘What y’all doing out here?’ ” Watkins said. “It’s just about having a presence in the community.”
The walk-around is known as “Safe Passage,” and it’s meant as a building block in developing long-term relationships between kids and their elders in the neighborhoods. Many of the men who walk the streets are ex-offenders searching for opportunities to give back to the communities they once committed crimes in.
On a recent morning, Watkins was joined by Rickey Bryant, William Lawson, Cortez McDaniel, Donald Zimmerman and Elvin Johnson.
All are part of the National Homecomers Academy, which works with former offenders as they return from jail and prison stints. The men, who don’t actually escort children to school, are referred by probation officers and pastors.
“Just being out here is part of giving back to a community where I was part of the problem,” said Bryant, 52, a District native who was released from prison several years ago. “But what’s most important to me is talking with these young folks and letting them know they can make different decisions, trying to plant seeds that get them thinking differently.”
The morning walks — usually about six men show up rain or shine — is an effort to address a persistent problem: groups of kids from different neighborhoods fighting over turf and bullying each other as they go to and from school.
Watkins, 55, first started his version of the Safe Passage program 10 years ago in Ward 8. Children he knew from several middle schools would tip him off to after-school fights. As the director of a social service agency, he would often round up staff members and intervene before any violence occurred.
“The kids came to us because they knew they didn’t want to fight and they felt they could trust us not to tell anyone who tipped us off . . . and they knew we could stop stuff from going down,” Watkins said.
Watkins decided to revamp the volunteer effort after violence spiked in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood in the summer of 2010, and he reintegrated it into the two Ward 7 neighborhoods. There had been a number of shootings in Lincoln Heights, largely involving different groups of kids in neighboring developments. Some parents said their children were afraid to walk to school by themselves, so Watkins decided to gather men from the Homecomers and create a morning presence in the neighborhood.