Louisvillian of the Year

Eddie Woods mentors Louisville’s at-risk youth

Dec 24, 2008 at 6:00 am
Louisvillian of the Year
Photo by Ben Schneider

Eddie Woods receives calls 24 hours a day, every day. One might come from a young man seeking relationship advice, the next from a worried mother who has not heard from her son in days.

Then there are the phone calls he dreads, like the one he received just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2006.

Home and unwinding unusually early, Woods answered his cell, always within reach, and the caller frantically uttered the news: “One of our guys got shot … I think it was Darryl.”

A little more than an hour earlier, Woods had talked to 17-year-old Darryl Head at the Parkland Boys and Girls Club at Greenwood Avenue and South 32nd Street, deep in the heart of west Louisville. As co-founder of a youth outreach organization called the LIFE Institute, Woods visits the club almost daily, mentoring kids in his group and urging those not yet involved to join.

Darryl Head already was a member of the LIFE Institute’s Operation Hope, an effort aimed at helping at-risk youth, particularly those associated with gangs.

On this crisp autumn evening two years ago, Woods walked into the gym at the Boys and Girls Club to find Head and a few friends playing basketball. When the game was finished, Woods gathered the guys under the basketball goal and engaged in a ritual he regularly carried out as evening gave way to night.

“We had this thing where I would always ask them where they were going at the end of the evening, and they would all say in unison, ‘We’re going home.’ We would do this three or four times,” recalls Woods, sitting in his second-floor office overlooking a stretch of West Broadway populated by industrial sites, fast-food joints and package liquor stores fortified with steel bars.

But on that Wednesday night in 2006, Head did not go home as promised, and an hour later, the car he was riding in near Victory Park at 22nd and Kentucky streets was sprayed with a hail of gunfire.

Head was shot — a bullet lodged in his skull.

Family and friends, including Woods, flocked to University Hospital. Teenagers lined the walls of the waiting room, according to Woods, recounting what he calls one of the worst moments of his life. Finally, a doctor emerged through the double doors in the cramped waiting room. Watching from across the room, Woods could not hear what the doctor was saying, but he knew the outcome all the same.

“I just saw those kids drop to the floor, almost in unison it seemed. That was the moment the doctor had told them Darryl had passed. When I walked over to them, they were laying everywhere, crying, their parents were trying to pick them up,” he says. “It was the most intense grief I’ve ever been around.”

Louisville Metro Police declared the shooting “gang-related,” and Head’s mother acknowledged her son did have ties to a local gang. But those who knew him insist he was heading in a more positive direction.

Not only was Head an active part of Operation Hope, he had recruited several of his friends to join as well. In a matter of months, he had abandoned much of the trouble he faced on the streets, instead spending time engaging in activities most teenagers would shun: feeding the homeless at soup kitchens, visiting senior citizens at nursing homes and participating in group sessions to talk about everything from college and careers to money management and how to interact with law enforcement.

“I got a lot of energy from him because I could see him doing better and changing how he thought,” says the 58-year-old Woods. “The signals were there to let you know that this cat was growing up. I knew something I was saying or doing was taking hold.”

The notorious Victory Park Crips took credit for shooting Head, a junior at Doss High School, and eventually police arrested gang member Dontez Stephenson for the murder.

“It never has gotten back quite right, to be honest about it,” says Woods. “These kids are still fighting about that.”

And Woods is still fighting to show those very same kids there is another way. His approach is unorthodox, which perhaps is why they are so willing to listen.

“I don’t ever tell a kid not to gang bang or sell dope or anything like that,” says Woods, leaning forward in a white Naugahyde chair, periodically waving his hands as he speaks. “I tell them to make a better choice. I talk to them about what they want in life, and I help them figure out what those better choices are.”

First, he says it’s necessary to connect with a young person, which cannot be accomplished by chastising: “I’m not judgmental at all in dealing with these kids. I’m not going to squash the messenger just because they cussed at me. I got to hear the message first, then I’ll deal with the language.”

Then there’s the fact that Woods is so available. Unless he’s on the other line, rarely will the voicemail pick up on his constantly buzzing cell phone, which on this day is clipped to the waistband of his black sweatpants — part of his all-black ensemble, contrasted by stark white tennis shoes and a gold hoop in his left ear.

Finally, Woods strives to expose these young people to new activities that most outreach service providers deem “too square” for such tough kids, whether it’s going to the theater, playing organized sports, volunteering or learning to play chess. Many of the photographs lining the wood-paneled walls of Woods’ office serve as proof that the kids are receptive.

Pointing to one photo of about a dozen young men huddled together, Woods explains the picture was taken after feeding needy families and handing out Christmas presents to children at the Boys and Girls Club two years ago. Most of the guys, he says, either were involved in a gang at some point, or still are struggling with leaving gang life behind.

His candor sheds light on a troubling reality: Many of the at-risk children, teens and young adults Woods works with remain very much at risk, even though they are open to his message.

When asked whether he considers this a failure, he says bluntly: “It’s a success as long as they’re alive. That’s how critical it is in this town, it’s just not that well known.”

Growing up in the California neighborhood of west Louisville, Eddie Woods admits he was no stranger to trouble. But his parents were strict, and taught him and his two younger brothers and younger sister to respect authority.

“I was involved in gang stuff, me and my brothers, but we had to be in at 9:30. So all gang activity was over at 9:30 or else Mom would get crazy,” he says, smiling, but clearly serious.

Back then — in the 1960s — gang activity consisted mainly of fistfights and petty theft. It wasn’t unusual to scuffle with a rival gang one day, then play basketball with them the next.

But that began to change as illegal guns poured into inner-city neighborhoods, becoming readily available to anyone with enough cash, or anything of value to trade. In fact, these days Woods says a Game Boy is enough to score a pistol.

“There are shootings in the inner city here I dare say every night,” says Woods, who relies on “street captains” to inform him of any mounting tension or violence. These are members of Operation Hope who communicate what is unfolding on the streets, alerting him when something is about to go down, or in some cases, after the fact.

“We know within hours when there’s been a shooting,” he says. “We usually know within hours or days who did it and why.”

Whatever information Woods gathers about guns and violence, he shares with police.

When there is the potential for “street heat,” Woods and other outreach workers often patrol the neighborhood where a fight is expected in an effort to deter any violence. Often, Woods says his partner in this effort is Norman Martin of the Parkland Boys and Girls Club: “He and I have been running towards the drama together for most of the last 17 years.”

This on-the-ground outreach has left Woods dodging bullets on more than one occasion.

The closest call was eight years ago, when he was talking to one of his street captains near Sheppard Square. About a block away, a blue Chevy with no lights on slowly rolled toward them. “First I saw the kid’s face,” he says. “Then I saw the barrel come out the window and he fired three shots at us. We hit the ground and the guy sped off.”

The sound of gunfire is often a daily occurrence in Louisville’s high-crime neighborhoods, and sometimes, even when a victim is gravely wounded, the shooting still does not garner media attention. Last month, Woods says an Operation Hope member was shot near the corner of 23rd and Davis. No media outlets reported details of the shooting, and as far as Woods knows, there is no suspect.

The 18-year-old victim — who Woods declined to name at the family’s request — remains in the hospital in critical condition, unable to speak. What’s so heartbreaking, he says, is the fact that this young man was trying to change: He was staying home at night, spending time with his family and two young children, had recently started working and bought a car.

“He was doing everything except the one thing we knew was going to be the hardest — when the phone rings, don’t go. When they call you, don’t go,” says Woods, his voice shaking in frustration.

As Woods tells it, on this particular night the young man’s friends called him seven times. Finally he answered, leaving his house to meet up with them at 3:30 a.m. Forty-five minutes later, he was shot twice in the back of the head.

“You’ve got a kid who was trying his best to stay away from it,” Woods says, “but his friends weren’t about to let him do that.”

Asked how he copes with such tragedies, Woods rattles off a few of the many success stories he has witnessed.

The LIFE Institute has helped 62 young people go to college — kids who might otherwise never have sought to further their education. In addition to introducing them to the idea of college, Woods and fellow volunteers help prospective graduates fill out applications and secure funding. With the help of the LIFE Institute, one girl who lived in Carter Homes went on to play basketball at the University of Nebraska, and now she’s head coach of the women’s basketball team at St. Augustine’s College in North Carolina. One boy now works in Gov. Steve Beshear’s office, pursuing a career in politics.

As Woods is recounting these accomplishments, his cell phone buzzes. Glancing at the number, he apologizes, but says he has to take this one: “You OK? Is everything OK? … Alright then, I’ll catch up with you later and we can talk.” The call came from a former gang member now playing basketball at Lindsey Wilson College.

Admittedly, not every troubled teen Woods crosses paths with goes on to college and a prestigious career, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making progress. In fact, he sees it as a success when a kid simply shows up for one of his programs. At least that kid’s not hanging out on the street.

After graduating from Central High School, Woods attended Eastern Kentucky University, where he studied art and dabbled in photography, painting and sculpture. It took him six-and-a-half years to earn a degree, which Woods jokingly attributes to the fact that “artistic people don’t seem to hurry too much.” These days, he sticks to photography, and much of his work — mainly portraits of his family members — decorates his office.

After college Woods returned home and, still unsure about a career, decided the best option was to continue his education. For years he had been interested in the justice system, so he settled on the criminal justice program at the University of Louisville. Initially, he envisioned working as a criminologist, studying deviant crimes and serial killers.

While pursuing his master’s degree, Woods began working with criminal inmates at Central State Hospital. Noticing the inmates at the hospital kept getting younger, he realized reaching out to youth was his calling.

Eventually earning master’s degrees in criminal justice and public administration (and ultimately a doctoral degree in justice administration), Woods spent several years working for the federal government’s drug-free schools program and the state’s division of substance abuse.

“I had the good fortune of one of my supervisors telling me I was difficult to supervise and that I should start my own business,” Woods says.

And so he did, launching the LIFE Institute in 1990 with the help of his wife, Annette. (Actually, they initially called themselves The Woods Co., using “TWC” as their logo until a lawyer for The Weather Channel threatened a lawsuit.) The couple — now married 22 years — operated the nonprofit out of their home, meeting with children and teens at local schools, churches and community centers. The mission from the beginning was simple: reach out to kids in jeopardy of falling prey to a life of crime, drugs and gangs.

Currently, Woods estimates the Life Institute serves about 180 young people, ranging in age from 5 years old to late 20s. They reach their youngest members through after-school tutoring, which is funded in part with a No Child Left Behind grant. They also offer strategic family planning classes to parents, teaching skills like living on a budget, navigating the court system and finding a job. If one family member is involved in the LIFE Institute, the entire family is welcome.

“I guess when we get involved with someone, we get involved for life,” he says. “That kind of fits our name, I guess.”

In recent years, the LIFE Institute has evolved into a family operation. In addition to Woods at the helm, serving as CEO and program developer, his wife assists with data entry, his sister serves as executive director, one brother is on the board of directors, a nephew handles security, another nephew finds volunteers, one daughter, who manages a local bank branch, handles the finances, his other daughter does graphic design work and charts the grades and behavior of Operation Hope members, and his son heads a program teaching kids the business side of the music industry.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit reached a milestone with the opening of two facilities: one in the South End, which serves as a multicultural center, and another at 3050 W. Broadway, a two-story brick building now serving as their headquarters. The latter was acquired with the help of Councilwoman Judy Green, D-1st District, who approached Woods in the fall about opening a community center in Parkland, after one of her sons was beaten unconscious in that neighborhood on his way to school. 

Walking through LIFE Institute’s new home in the West End, Woods vividly describes how he plans to use every inch of the 4,500-square-foot building, once home to the headquarters for Falls City Brewery and, most recently, a trucking company. At this point, the second floor — adorned with maroon carpet, drop ceilings and ’70s-era dark-wood paneling — is the hub of activity. In addition to office space for personnel, there’s a makeshift classroom scattered with desks where tutors work with children every weekday afternoon. There’s also a meeting room, a music studio in the works, and an old metal walk-in safe that is being transformed into a library.

On the first floor, Woods traipses through the two main rooms, still unfinished and caked in drywall dust. One will serve as a dance studio; the other as an art gallery.

“Our operation now is in a real position to grow because of these buildings,” says Woods, stopping momentarily to admire his surroundings, which he envisions will be filled with kids in a matter of months.

As the renovations are under way, Woods will continue showing children — whose futures are uncertain at best — that there is a better path.

“This is what I do. This is all I do,” he says. “It’s the kind of work you do when you’re not looking for accolades or for money, but it’s real rewarding and real satisfying.”

Sitting behind a massive u-shaped desk on a recent Wednesday, Woods is flanked by several of his Operation Hope “guys,” who are enthusiastically talking to and over one another, offering their opinions about various upcoming events. There’s talk of dances, a hip-hop concert, a Super Bowl party and a youth Derby Party.

Of the Derby event, 20-year-old Kendale Ancrum chimes in with a sly smile, saying, “We ain’t youth no more, we grown.” They all laugh, and Woods responds with a good-natured, “F you all then,” shaking his head and smiling, before carrying on with business.

Almost every day Ancrum says he visits the Parkland Boys and Girls Club to chat with “Mr. Eddie” and participate in one of his group sessions. The conversations sometimes last up to two hours, often focusing on the future. “He’s a good person and he’ll keep you out of trouble,” says Ancrum, adding that he had no intention of going to college before meeting Woods, but now he is seriously considering it.

It’s a sentiment shared by 17-year-old Chiare Rowan, who recently earned his GED after dropping out of high school. Now he is preparing to start at Kentucky State in January and hopes to major in business, and possibly go into real estate.

“He didn’t say you have to stop doing this or that. He just showed me a better option,” says Rowan, sitting up straight and removing his hands from the pockets of his dark-blue hoodie as he speaks. “If I’d kept doing what I was doing I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d probably be sitting in jail right now.”

Then there’s Kenerill Bibb, who met Woods when he was 16 years old and about to get into “some serious trouble.” Now 29, Bibb still takes part in Operation Hope, both as a mentor and, at times, a member. “I still have my faults I battle with daily as a grown man,” he says. “I still need some mentoring, too.”

Describing Woods as “extremely hands on,” Bibb says, “It’s unusual someone would come to a bad neighborhood and put his life on the line to help somebody.”

That’s exactly what Woods does every day. Walking the streets with a supply of business cards, he approaches groups of young people and matter-of-factly explains he can show them something better to do with their time. Usually they aren’t responsive on the spot, in front of their friends; he’ll get a call a few days later from someone interested in seeing what he has to offer.

Everyone who joins Operation Hope devises a life plan with the help of a mentor. Over time, they adjust the plan based on what they want and need to attain their goals. The program also encourages each member to perform at least 55 hours of community service, something Ancrum, Rowan and Bibb all say changed their outlook on life.

“Instead of doing scared straight stuff, like taking them to jails, we try to get them engaged in the community,” says Woods. “They tend to protect and not violate things they have a stake in, so the community service seems to do that.”

Expanding their horizons beyond what they see on the streets is key to Operation Hope, which is why Woods insists on exposing these young people to new activities. He recalls taking a group of teenagers to see “The Lion King” on stage a few years ago, listening to them complain until the moment the lights went down and the production began. When the show was finished, they were in awe.

Last year, Woods arranged a community forum on youth violence, which included a panel of city leaders and prosecutors. Relinquishing any contempt they might have for authority, several Operation Hope members agreed to talk candidly with the panel, sharing their experiences. “They talked about how easy it is to get their hands on guns, how easy it is to fire one after the first time,” says Woods. “I told them they didn’t have to say anything that would incriminate themselves, but I wanted them to be honest about how they live and they were. It was a very proud moment for me.”

Talking to city lawmakers is not something many of these kids ever expected to do, and the experience opened their eyes — a recurring theme in Operation Hope.

“They’re not the beasts they seem to be on TV and in the paper. They’re somebody’s child, somebody’s nephew, somebody’s teammate or classmate,” he says. “I guess that’s probably the part I try to get out there. At the same time, I try to get them to understand they are responsible for who they are.”