LORAIN, Ohio—Re'Nee Gill's service to kids came while she was saving herself.
To understand her passion about stopping gun violence, go back to 1971, the year her father was gunned down in a bar.
To understand her commitment to kids, hear how she begged God for a child, promising to stop hustling drugs and to become a positive force in her community.
To understand her vision, watch her stand over a vacant city lot using expansive gestures to sketch out her dream for a safe, nurturing youth center for the children of her impoverished northeast Ohio community.
But it's harder to understand the source of Gill's no-compromising, in-your-face attitude toward foundations, community organizations and businesses that could help her. She calls the local NAACP "a bunch of jelly-backs" and blasts the local school superintendent for ignoring community input "unless he wants some money."
"She's always been her own strong individual," says her mother, Lola Burns.
Gill, 41, is founder and primary funder of "Drop the Guns,' a hybrid after-school program that promotes nonviolence and provides positive learning experiences and life-style training for youth in this struggling, rust-belt county west of Cleveland.
She runs Drop the Guns on a shoestring - the organization has a $79,000 annual budget but will be lucky to reach half that amount in her never-ending fund-raising efforts. If she does all she plans for the more than 100 children she reaches (at two sites in the city of Lorain and one in Elyria), it will be because she's dug deeper into her pocket or pressed more volunteers to donate time and services.
"Since we been in business, we ain't made our budget yet,' says Gill, a woman with substantial street experience who has little patience for the niceties often required of nonprofits seeking funds. "I'm the type of person where I don't have to have your acceptance. I'm going to do what needs to be done for the kids whether you help out or not."
"I agree she's rough around the edges,' says Perry Johnson, senior Exploring executive for the Heart of Ohio Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which has assisted Gill. "But what she does kind of compensates for that. The love and concern she has for the kids and the program she presents really help. She's a blessing to the community. She's like Mother Teresa here."
Her paycheck merits the comparison: Gill says that last year she made $23,000 through Drop the Guns and 10 hours a week as an organizer and troop leader for the Boy Scouts. But in a way Gill is fortunate to be making anything.Drop the Joint
Gill's parents and their eight children were about to celebrate the couple's 18th wedding anniversary on Feb. 18, 1971, when 11-year-old Re'Nee was sent downstairs to the Journey Bar in Lorain to fetch her father, Charlie Joe Burns. On the way, Re'Nee heard a hammering noise: "boom, boom, boom.'
When she got inside she found her father, a former Gold Gloves boxing champ, dying of gunshot wounds by the pool table. His killer fled. As she held her father's head in her lap, he told his daughter to help her mother take care of the kids.
She quit school for several years to do just that. By 17 Gill was out on her own, running the streets. "I ended up gang-banging and everything else,' Gill says. She says she was not a street-walking prostitute, but "I traded sex for money. ... I had this mentality that if you're going to have sex with me, you're going to pay.'
She knew it was no kind of life. After several miscarriages and being told she would never carry a child full-term, Gill turned to God, promising to lead a life of service to others if she could have a child. She moved from Cleveland and her drug friends to live with family in Arkansas, then Columbus.
Against the predictions of doctors, it happened: in 1988, Gill gave birth to a daughter, Erika.
Gill did not immediately keep her end of the deal. She was attending church and staying out of trouble, but there she was one Sunday morning smoking a joint before services while preparing a roast and collard greens for dinner. On a nearby TV was the Rev. Rob Parsley.
"I was listening in the kitchen and this man said, 'All right, it's me and you and the Holy Ghost! Put that joint down!' she recalls. She looked around the corner at the TV in the living room; the preacher said, "You out there in TV land, put that joint down! ... You made God some promises and you're not living up to them.'
She put down the joint. She lifted her hands in prayer. "I've been radically changed ever since,' Gill says.
She entered a job training program with Columbus Goodwill Industries, where she took a self-esteem class taught by psychotherapist Chuck Davis. He did for her what good youth workers do for kids.
"She looked like a woman with a purpose," Davis says. "She just didn't know what her purpose was.' He pulled Gill aside and asked: "Do you realize the gift that you have? I'm not going to put anything in you. I'm going to pull what's in you out."
Gill was flabbergasted. "Nobody had ever told me how special I was, nobody had ever told me how good I was."
Infused with a sense of purpose, Gill became a counselor in Goodwill's jobs training program and began taking classes toward an associates degree in social work.
She eventually made her way back to Lorain and the old neighborhood, determined to help kids avoid the drugs and violence she had witnessed. "I come from the 'hood, so I don't mind living in the 'hood,' she says.
'Who is This Woman?'
Gill got a vision about a program to teach non-violence to kids. "I'd be driving down the road and I would see all these pictures of me. I would see kids running up and giving me hugs. What I seen in them pictures, I'm seeing now in real life.'
She was a child care aid at a Cleveland juvenile detention center, but reported staff members for verbal and physical abuse of youth. "I was told I was an overprotective mother,' she says. She quit.
In September 1994 she started "Drop the Guns, Try the Son,' from her home. It's mission: "promote handgun awareness to youth ages 12-18 ... via prevention and intervention workshops as well as spiritual growth." She conducted programs in the community rooms of two public housing complexes in Lorain, paying most of the costs herself while begging (usually in vain) for supplies or cash from corporations, local foundations and charitable groups. She got her first grant in 1997: $5,000 from the Nordson Corporation, a local manufacturing company.
Then in the semi-rural town of Elyria she found a church, the House of Praise, and a cause: The Wilkes Villa subsidized apartment complex, where drug-dealing was rampant and people were afraid to come out after dark. Elyria Police Officer Jim Baxter, who is posted at a police substation in Wilkes Villa, says officers responding to calls there were often greeted by thrown bottles and jeers. Several people had been shot over the prior few years.
Before stepping in, Gill made a compromise: at the suggestion of House of Praise Pastor Gilbert Silva, she dropped "Try the Son" from her group's name. He said foundations are wary of supporting faith-based groups.
At Wilkes Villa, Gill quickly connected with the kids, residents and police. "Re'Nee, who is kind of a product of that environment, succeeds because she's earned the trust of the children and even some of the adults who work there," says John Mullaney, executive director of the Nord Family Foundation in Elyria, which contributes to Drop the Guns. "People raise their eyebrows and ask 'Who is this woman? How can she have this credibility?' She's very charismatic, she does things no matter what."
She does things from a six-bedroom apartment (which she gets at a reduced rent thanks to the Lorain Metropolitan Housing Authority). It features a room with several computers, a school-like teaching room, a child care room and a "quiet time" room for overly energetic youths. A donated pool table dominates the downstairs living room area. She also conducts workshops at local schools.
Gill has crafted her own curriculum from journals and literature through the mail. Her programs, mostly role-playing scenarios acted out by kids, last about 45 minutes. There's time for snacks and recreation either outdoors or at the pool table and computers.
"We find that role playing provokes the kids so much more than workshops,' Gill says. For instance, she will ask the kids to react to being teased about their looks. The reaction is usually confrontational. Then they repeat the scenario with Gill suggesting less threatening ways of responding to provocations.
These are scenes from the real lives of kids. "We just teach them how to deal with things that hurt them so much," Gill says. "Guns, drugs, prostitution, violence, all go hand-in-hand, like they crocheted together. You can't deal with one without dealing with the other."
This holistic approach goes beyond the official program. Drop the Guns is an ad-hoc effort in which Gill tries to help kids and families through whatever confronts them. She scans the Help Wanted ads for parents, helps them write resumes and lets them drop the kids off at her office for day care. She and several Drop the Guns volunteers recently painted a house for an elderly couple. She has organized Drop the Guns marches, started a kids' essay contest, taught African-American history to the youths and organized trips to Washington, D.C., for impoverished kids.
Since Gill arrived at Wilkes Villa, most of the disturbances by youth have stopped, Officer Baxter says. "She's got a good way of motivating the kids,' he says. "We still get who we call knuckleheads causing a little trouble, but calls [for police] are way down.'
Adults, on the other hand, don't always respond well to Gill. She "has a difficult time being accepted by some of the mainstream society here," Mullaney says. "I think people don't quite know what to do with her. Oftentimes people don't know what to do with people who are screaming the truth."
Gill "is not a professional politician," says Richard Henderickson, editorial page editor of the Lorain Morning Journal. "But she's one of these folks who gets really passionate' about the issue of kids and guns.
Gil has written countless letters to the editor to the Journal and other papers. One of her most recent branded the local branch of the NAACP as "jelly-backs" for not pressing harder for more blacks to be appointed by Lorain's mayor and the local school superintendent. Her letter also attacked the Journal itself for sensationalizing the story of an eight-year-old girl whose mother photographed her nude in the bathtub. The mother was charged with child pornography. "They're exploiting this little girl and it needs to stop,' Gill says.
Mullaney and others say Gill's blunt manner has offended some potential funders. But in recent years she has gotten support from Mullaney's Nord Family Foundation ($40,500 since 1998), the Sisters of Charity in Cleveland, UAW Locals 425 and 2000, Grassroots Leadership (of Lorain), the Boy Scouts of America, Exodus Women's Ministries, and small amounts from the Young Women's Christian Association.
"What I saw and heard in her voice was 100 percent dedication to those kids,' Mullaney says. "She's an example of a real grassroots person that in a very small way is making a tremendous impact on the lives of people in her community."
"I piss people off all the time,' Gill said. "The reason I piss people off is anything I'm doing I'm not doing to please them. I try to tell everybody that I work for God. If they don't like me or my personality, tough."