Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector was recovering in the hospital shortly after being viciously attacked by two teenagers in a carjacking attempt that left her bruised and with a black eye — “I looked like a raccoon,” Spector said — when council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young paid her a visit.
Young, like many of their colleagues on the council, was livid. What kind of children would attack a tiny, octogenarian woman in her own parking garage, he asked himself. Young expected Spector to be seething with a desire for justice.
The great-grandmother had other thoughts on her mind.
“She wasn’t worried about prosecuting them,” Young said. “She was more about, ‘What can we do for them?’ I was taken aback.”
Since the assault and robbery took place in December 2016, Spector has taken an active role in the lives of the two teenagers who attacked her, becoming a mentor to them in partnership with non-profits in Baltimore. The 81-year-old Spector, who finished her last term just days after the incident, has decided to dedicate her post-council career to reforming the juvenile justice system so that effective programs are in place for at-risk youths as early as possible.
Both teenagers, now 16 and 14, spent time in juvenile detention and were put under house arrest after the attack. The younger boy also spent two months in a juvenile rehabilitation facility in Montgomery County.
The Washington Post generally does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.
“These are our kids,” said Spector, who represented District 5 on the city council from June 1977 until December 2016. “They’re our people. They live where we live. They walk where we walk. We share our space. We have to learn to respect and not harm each other.”
Within the week after the boys were arrested, Spector attended a court hearing where she met Michelle Suazo, vice president and co-founder of UEmpower of Maryland, a multi-program non-profit founded in 2013 that provides food and mentoring to low-income families in Baltimore. Among those that UEmpower served were the two teens who had attacked Spector.
Suazo approached Spector and offered her apologies for what the boys had done. Then she proposed a plan. Suazo wanted Spector to visit the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore where the boys grew up.
The median household income for Southwest Baltimore was $24,946 in 2014 and 35.4 percent lived below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Baltimore school board voted in December 2016 to shut down Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School, effective as of last summer. It was a space that had provided a brief respite from the dangers of the streets for kids growing up in Carrollton Ridge, Suazo said.
“If you go into this neighborhood, you can see the buildings are crumbling. There are no resources for children,” Suazo said. “They have no voice. They were left to be forgotten when the [attack on Spector] happened. …We were so horrified by the situation but we wanted to see if there was a way to work together to come up with a solution.”
Spector agreed and described being mortified by the dire situation she witnessed.
“I saw completely open drug dealing all over the place,” Spector said, adding that she also saw very young teen prostitutes hailing men in the street.
Spector started to meet with the boys at UEmpower events and recently became a board member of the non-profit. She helped the team secure kitchen and cafeteria space at the former neighborhood elementary school for UEmpower’s flagship food project.
Parents for the boys did not respond to interview requests from The Washington Post, but Spector said she already sees changes in their behavior.
The older boy told The Baltimore Sun last week that his performance in school has improved as a result of the mentoring.
“After this incident happened, and they put me on house arrest, I just started busting my school work out,” he said. “My grades started going up and up and up. I don’t hang around the people I was doing that dumb stuff with. I hang around with whole new people who don’t even live on this side of town. So my life, it just turned around.”
At one cooking demo, the teens learned to cook from a professional chef and made an extra meal just for their new mentor. Spector ate the food and gave the boys a hug.
“I see how these boys are growing, how they’re treating each other,” she said. “It’s transformational. And the adults that are coming forth and mentoring, they’re walking angels. I’m in awe of them.”
Melvin Willingham, who leads the Makings of a Man Male Youth Initiative mentorship program in conjunction with UEmpower, first met both teens around the time of the incident.
In the time since, and with Spector’s help, the younger boy has learned to be more trusting of adults who want to help him, Willingham said, and the older boy has been more patient and aware of his standing a leader and role model among his peers.
“Rikki is a beacon of hope for them,” Willingham added. “Her showing compassion, her showing the desire to come down to work with them to make sure they’re okay, to help improve their lives and empower their lives, that is huge for them. It gives them an opportunity to be more than what society has labeled them to be – which is at-risk youths that have a slim chance to be a [productive] member of society.”
Spector and the older boy were honored at a recent gala at the Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion synagogue in Baltimore. Among those attending were elected officials, judges and police officers from all over the city. The teenager was shaking with nerves as he walked up to the stand and had to lean on the 5-foot-2 Spector to avoid collapsing.
He was concerned that the crowd would resent him for his actions from a year earlier.
“I’m so proud of you,” Spector said to him as they embraced each other. They both walked off the stage to a standing ovation.