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Mentor program rehabs cars, as well as young men’s lives

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:05AM



Bent over a grinder, wrestling paint from the body of an ancient auto, the young men appear frozen, their goggled eyes lasered on the movement of screeching metal-on-metal that is spewing sparks like fireworks.

Preaching to them was Kenneth Trotter — because although he was talking about removing old paint and rust, he was preaching, really — the idea of restoration applied to this group of teens and 20-somethings just as much as to the hot rods in the shop.

Odis Woods Jr., 21, of Englewood, is one of the young men lured to the Automotive Mentoring Group by the antique cars, then mentored and taught skills necessary for work and life. Alex Levesque started the nonprofit in 2007 to target the listless youth he disliked seeing on the corners.

Woods had dropped out of Harlan High School, ran the streets and got locked up just before his 19th birthday. He got out of prison in January 2011.

An uncle — who had thought Woods was dead — promptly brought him to AMG.

“I left Harlan a month before graduation. I had a lot of family issues, like 12 deaths within six months. My cousin got killed. My brother got shot in the head. I didn’t know how to deal with it,” says Woods. “I just lost it. I was doing all types of stuff, selling drugs, gang banging. Eventually, I was incarcerated. Delivering and manufacturing narcotics.”

But this past June, Woods graduated as valedictorian at Youth Connection Leadership Academy, an alternative school. He’s now at Kennedy-King College studying automotive technology. He just got hired at UPS.

“When Odis came in, he was all tough, didn’t want to talk,” said Trotter, 49, of Beverly, a lieutenant with 23 years at the Chicago Fire Department. “Alex said, ‘This one I don’t know what to do with.’ I said give me some time. I can look in these guys’ eyes and see there’s something there. Sometimes they need somebody to go that extra step. After a while, he was like, ‘Wow, I like this.’ The cars are what gets them.”

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Through mid-November, the gang violence that has wracked Chicago’s inner city had notched 453 homicides — surpassing 2011’s total of 435 — an increase of 17 percent over the same period last year.

Debate rages over how to wrest young men from the grip of gangs, guns and drugs.

“This gang violence thing is really everybody’s problem,” says the soft-spoken Levesque, 56, of Woodlawn, whose passion for restoring antique cars was featured on “Oprah.”

The architect-turned-master car builder estimates his small organization — it has seven mentors now — has worked with 300 young men since he first followed his calling.

On a recent day, in trademark cap and oil-stained blue shirt, is welcoming mentors and mentees as they arrive at AMG’s 10,000-square-foot warehouse on the Southwest Side. Soon, some dozen young men are working slow magic on body panels, trim, chrome, wheels, dashboards of disassembled shells. Some mentors and mentees just rap, leaning against restored numbers like a gleaming, apple red ’71 Chevy C-10 pickup truck with 24-inch wheels.

“I was driving through the city every day seeing these guys on the corners in the morning and afternoon, and saying, ‘Somebody oughta do something about this,’ ” Levesque recalls. “The Holy Spirit just put it on my heart and said, ‘What about you?’ ”

After obtaining a degree in architecture, Levesque spent seven years with an architecture firm before realizing he didn’t enjoy it. He remembered his love of cars. Married, without kids, he quit his job, took courses in automotive restoration and opened his first hot rod shop in 1993. He became successful.

“I started driving around in these classic cars and trucks. The guys on the corners would be focused on the car when I drive up. I’d talk to them about the car, then about coming to see me to learn some job skills,” Levesque recalls. “A lot of times they’d say, ‘Hey man, screw you.’ I’d say, ‘Well here’s my card. Call me when you’re ready.’ Before I got off the block, they were calling saying ‘Hey, I wanna come down.’ ”

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Terrell Kirk, 36, of Old Irving Park, met Levesque at 17, and became his very first mentee.

“I was in a gang, selling drugs. Alex would give me motivating talks. He got to know my family,” says Kirk, today a locomotive engineer driving trains for Canadian National Railway, a married father of six, and AMG mentor. Back then, business was good and Levesque ran the program out of his own pocket.

With the economic downturn, however, it’s been harder for Levesque and his volunteers to support their mentees. AMG incorporated as a nonprofit five years ago to be able to accept donations.

“They aren’t gang-bangers to me, just youth who need direction,” says mentor Alton Brown, 54, of South Chicago, who diverts to AMG many troubled youth he comes across as a Chicago police officer of 21 years.

Quantrell Haywood, 22, of Englewood, still has one foot stuck in trouble, although he has been coming to AMG about a year now.

Haywood was expelled from CVS High School, graduated from an alternative school, and went off to Langston University in Oklahoma. He didn’t make it there. What followed: gangs, drugs, other crimes.

“I never liked that life. I mean, sometimes it’s what we gotta do, but I never, never liked it. It was nothing I was proud of,” he says. He says he wants better for his three sons, but couldn’t find a job.

“I stopped doing a lot of stuff I used to do ’cause I know Alex and Kenny and Carlos, they’re counting on me to do better. They’re some good dudes,” he says.

On a recent Sunday, Ananias Granger Jr., owner of A&D Property Services, came to make a donation, and agreed to a partnership with AMG where he would hire some of the young men, starting with Haywood.

“I’m happy!” Haywood said, giddily. “I’d been coming here awhile, and things hadn’t necessarily changed for me. I knew it’s like school, not going to pay off right then and there, but down the line. I’ve had one foot out the life, one foot in. I do have faith that my foot will be all the way out that life eventually.”



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