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Repo Man

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It is Family Night at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco, and a procession of troubled teenagers is coming clean. One, a newcomer named Leroy, admits to being caught up in the “game” (the gangs), to dabbling in the “mix” (drug life) and to being a regular at juvenile hall.

Joe Marshall is blunt. “You’re sick,” he says to the kid. “Have you ever been to a doctor?”

“Yes,” answers Leroy.

“Did you take the doctor’s medication?” asks Marshall.

“Yes,” says Leroy.

“What you are doing here tonight is vomiting,” says Marshall. “Now that you’ve got it out of your system, you will get sick again if you don’t take your medication. And we’ve got the prescription.”

Tall, thin, his hair shorn to a stubble, Marshall, 51, talks tough and acts even tougher. A onetime high school math teacher, winner of a 1994 MacArthur “genius” Award and author of the 1996 Street Soldier, he is the moving force behind the Omega Boys Club of San Francisco, which offers counseling and job training to some 80 teenagers, plus an academic program that has placed over 100 students, many of them ex-drug dealers, in college. “These kids are thinking about dying,” says Marshall. “We have to get them thinking about living.”

The first step in returning at-risk kids to health, says Marshall, is getting them off the street and into school. (To this end, Omega raises enough money from private sources each year to give 50 grants totaling $250,000.) The next step is helping them confront their fears and anger. The third, and trickiest, is to give them what he calls “rules for living.”

Marshall treats his kids as if they have been abducted by a cult and need to be deprogrammed. In highly charged intervention sessions and on his radio show, syndicated to 32 stations in 15 states, he goes toe-to-toe with the prevailing “gangsta” code. “We tell them that a friend is not somebody who has your back. He is someone who will never lead you into danger.” And respect is not gained by being “strapped” (carrying a gun), insists Marshall; rather, “you have to validate yourself.”

The oldest of nine children of a retired construction foreman, Joe Sr., 75, and Odessa, 75, a retired nurse, Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Street culture existed but in a less virulent form, and kids were insulated from it by values instilled in the home. “When I was 11, I got ‘jumped’ into a gang,” he says. “I told my father and that night he jumped me out of it. I was more afraid of him than the homies.”

Joe Sr. says Marshall was “an A student from his first day in school.” And he always had a job. When he was little, Marshall asked his grandmother Louise Pierce, now 91, what he should be when he grew up. “I want you to be teacher,” Pierce recalls telling him. “He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because you can help others.’ ”

He followed her advice, first graduating in 1968 from the University of San Francisco, where he was nearly expelled for organizing a riot, and where today he serves as a trustee. (There he also met his wife of 27 years, Saundra. Now separated, they have three children—Cassie, 11; Sydney-Nicole, 19, a student at Howard University; and Malcolm, 27, a musician.) Marshall was already well into a 25-year career in San Francisco’s public schools when he received a letter from a gifted former student. The letter was written not from college but from a prison cell, where the writer had been sent for dealing drugs. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something,’ ” says Marshall. In 1987, he and youth counselor Jack Jacqua launched the Omega Boys Club to help kids turn their lives around.

“I remember when we had none, then one graduate,” says Marshall, examining a plaque naming Omega’s 46 college grads. “Graduations over funerals, that’s an easy choice.” As for his own dedication, the explanation is simple. “I’m blessed,” he says. “And when you’re blessed, you try to pass it on.”

William Plummer

Elizabeth Fernandez in San Francisco