How I Met Kevin
My life intersected with Kevin Hogan’s in July of 2007 when he enrolled in North St. YouthBuild, a GED and construction training program where I was the director. Kevin (and 377 other students) dropped out of Beaumont High School the year before, contributing to the school’s abysmal 37.8% graduation rate. He came into YouthBuild with a 6th grade reading level and was the class clown, constantly getting in trouble for slacking off and distracting others with his antics. He was also a pretty amazing athlete.
Being the program director at YouthBuild is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It definitely left a mark on me — I don’t know if it’s a scar or a beauty mark. I’m used to achieving success proportional to my effort. YouthBuild continues to haunt me because I poured everything I had into it, and I’m not sure if it made a difference. Was it worth it? I don’t know.
Of the 47 students accepted into the program, the only one who was there on very the first day and the very last day was Kevin Hogan. I still find that amazing. He got kicked out of YouthBuild at the end of November after being sent home six times for being disruptive or not participating, but we later let him back in until the program concluded in June.
Tonz ‘O’ Gunz
Tons o’ guns, everybody’s getting strapped
Tons o’ guns, got to watch the way you act
Tons o’ guns, real easy to get
Tons o’ guns, bringing nothing but death
— Gang Starr, “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz”
The incident that paralyzed Kevin from the waist down wasn’t the first time he’d been shot. A week after he returned to YouthBuild in March of 2008, he was accidentally shot in the back by a ricocheting sawed-off shotgun blast in the basement of his stepbrother’s apartment. He came to class the next day as though nothing happened and showed me the shrapnel embedded in his back.
The last time I saw Kevin before he wound up in a wheelchair was at a YouthBuild reunion on September 18, 2010. By that time, he had an 11-week-old baby boy. He was one of the few students who showed up to the reunion and was the most excited about it. Afterwards, I gave him a ride home to his house on Natural Bridge.
A month later, he was shot in the back on the front steps of that same house. There were five murders and 30 armed robberies in The Greater Ville in 2010. It was tied that year with the adjacent JeffVanderLou neighborhood for the most aggravated assaults with guns: 114.
The title comes from Kevin’s comment about his friend Slim who survived being shot 13 times. He echoes that sentiment at the end of the video while talking about fatherhood: “I’m gonna be there for mine… just gotta stay there.” To me, it underscores the importance of sticking around in an environment where people are prone to walking out or dying unexpectedly.
Kevin could have been killed, but he wasn’t. He’s still here. And I’m still here, too. To the extent that my time at YouthBuild adds up to anything, it’s going to be the result of continuing to be involved in some students’ lives on at least some level over the long haul.
Pervasive violence has lost its shock value for Kevin. He casually lists his relatives and friends who have been shot as though his experience is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s amazing what people can get used to as being normal.
Kevin seems to inhabit another world, and yet I don’t know how you can live in the city of St. Louis and not feel connected to it in some way. And if you feel connected to it, you’re obligated to do something about it.
Besides physical proximity, there are other connections between Kevin’s world and mine. We both have sons. Listening to Kevin talk about Kevion, I’m struck by the nearly universal (if sometime unfounded) hope that somehow things will be better for the next generation, balanced with a dad’s fear that he can’t keep the bad things away.
Kevin’s story brings together a lot of big issues, including violence, education, race, poverty and fatherhood. Hopefully, it will spark some constructive conversations.
Where is the line between personal responsibility and the institutional realities someone is born into? How much of a person’s life is in his control? What are the limits of free will? What would I do in Kevin’s situation? I don’t know.
There’s a tired old debate in which both sides are a little bit right and both sides are wrong. On the one hand, conservatives say that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and if they fail to do that, they get what they deserve because their lot in life is all up to them. Dr. King’s response still stands: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” On the other hand, liberals claim that if the disadvantaged just had access to the right social programs, they’d jump at the opportunity to improve their lives. Sometimes, this comes with an undertone of rescuing the noble savages because they’re powerless to help themselves. From what I saw at YouthBuild, many people have an almost unlimited capacity to work against their own best interests and keep hurting themselves again and again even when they’re surrounded with wraparound services. My take is that we need to have programs like YouthBuild available so that when people decide to change, they’re there to help. Frustratingly, you can’t change people who don’t want to change, though.
It’s not often that you get to hear from people like Kevin Hogan in their own words in the media or even on YouTube. My goal with this little video is to interest someone with better videography skills to do a longer treatment to tell Kevin’s story and the stories of other YouthBuild students and people involved with similar programs in St. Louis. I can help arrange interviews. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to put a face on the news reports.