At the age of 11, LaDell Beamon began getting bullied — verbally and physically — by his peers in his South Memphis neighborhood of Pine Hill. Beamon encountered everything from insults to fistfights and even received a face full of lemonade while walking his younger cousin to a park.
At the age of 16, things reached a boiling point. Beamon had invited four friends to his house to enjoy some hamburgers and to have a few laughs. As his friends arrived, they asked him to make some Kool-Aid to go with the burgers. Out of sugar, Beamon decided that he would go to a nearby grocery store.
Beamon and his friends hopped into his mom's new Toyota Camry and set off. They cracked jokes and laughed as they rode, but the fun would end soon. Beamon was troubled, and he found himself thinking about how these same friends had instigated a fight between him and another boy a couple weeks earlier, over a girl they both liked.
"I was thinking, I'm over here cooking for these people, but two weeks ago, they were trying to get me in a fight. I'm about to kill everybody," Beamon says. "At that point, I felt like I couldn't take any more. I was at Hernando Road in South Memphis, right around the corner from where I lived. You're supposed to be going 35 miles per hour, [but] I took the car up to 110."
It had begun to rain, and the car hydroplaned. As everybody screamed, the Camry swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. The impact caused the engine to crush through the dashboard. Miraculously, only one person was injured.
"Everybody [in the car] knew what happened. It was an unspoken conversation," Beamon says. "We got past it, but it was still hard. I had to come to grips with myself and realize how far I had gone, because it wasn't just going to be a suicide but a homicide as well. I went through a lot trying to overcome that."
Beamon, now 38, is doing all he can to help Memphis youth avoid going through a similar experience or something even worse.
In 2007, he founded the Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis, a nonprofit organization that provides positive outlets for youth and young adults through the arts and other programs, to help them avoid joining gangs, indulging in crime, and using drugs.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third- leading cause of death among people 15 to 24 years old; it's the sixth-leading cause of death among those 5 to 14 years old.
Richard Janikowski, a University of Memphis criminology professor, says people between 14 to 26 years old commit the bulk of the city's violent crimes.
This statistic resonates with Beamon, who's seen 14 kids that he's worked with become casualties of violence. He's even had to identify a couple of bodies.
"If we can positively influence our young people to think before they make decisions," Beamon says, "to get out of gangs, avoid outcomes that result from peer pressure, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and steer away from weapons, then we may have just saved someone's life and helped them to be the dynamic person they were created to be."
The foundation is visiting 30 schools in the Memphis City Schools system to encourage discussion of teen issues, including gangs, bullying, sexual activity, and other matters of concern.
"The Wake Up Tour" includes music, dance, and motivational speakers. The group also performs skits that mimic real-life situations regarding whatever issue is being targeted for a particular school. Each skit has a "dramatic" outcome.
"It's kind of like a Burger King — we prepare the tours to order," Beamon says. "If they tell us they have an overwhelming problem with a certain issue, we'll pull from our arsenal a particular show or particular skits [to fit the problem]. We'll meet and we'll rehearse around them. Even the films that we use to open up the tours will cater to the situation.
"The most common thing that we deal with is low self-esteem, because the kids have a real poor image of themselves. When youth don't have a vision, they end up falling into gangs and a lot of [other] stuff. They're very nearsighted, and they can only see things that are in their community. It's very hard for them to expand beyond their world. That's the reason why we do a lot of skits and presentations and bring them some stuff that they've never seen. We can take them places mentally they've never been to before."
The group has so far visited Willow Oaks Elementary, Trezevant High, Frayser High, Chickasaw Middle, Hamilton Middle, Alton Elementary, Northside High, and other schools.
Heal the Hood's Brandon Mathis, 29, says the tours are 55 minutes of "edutainment," using positive music and acting.
"We've been sleeping for so long," Mathis says. "There are so many things that have been happening, and we need to wake up. We've decided to come up with something positive and take it throughout the Memphis City Schools, because these kids need to know that we're out here and we love them. It's to reward them for anything that they do well. Young people always make the news for things that are negative."
Prior to getting involved with Heal the Hood, Mathis was a member of the Neighborhood Crips gang and was also on trial for attempted murder. Now he's turned his life around. During his six-year tenure with Heal the Hood, Mathis says he's seen its programs motivate kids to quit drugs, criminal activity, and the gang lifestyle and move them to pursue a more promising life-path.
"It's something to see a young man come to you with tears in his eyes and say, 'For all this time, I've been blind to my own future,'" Mathis says. "We ask them about everything that they do in their everyday life: Does it draw them closer to their future or away from their future? If they answer it truthfully, they see how far along they are. You ask them what they are going to do with their lives, and they say, 'I don't know.' When we finish with them, they have a plan."
Heal the Hood's name centers on various words that have the suffix "hood."
"Everybody has a 'hood,' whether it be motherhood, fatherhood, parenthood, priesthood, brotherhood, sisterhood, or neighborhood," Beamon says. "A lot of times, our communities are broken, because something has gone wrong in parenthood. When you see juvenile courts being flooded, something has gone wrong in childhood. When you see priests molesting kids, something has gone wrong in the priesthood. If we heal those 'hoods,' we can truly heal our communities."
This year, the organization is emphasizing the problem of bullying, which has been linked to shootings, suicides, lowered school attendance, and increased dropout rates. According to bullyingstatistics.com — a website that provides information on bullying, harassment, and violence — one out of every 10 students who drops out of school does so because of repeated bullying. The National Education Association says that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of being attacked or intimidated by other students.
In February, Heal the Hood released Bullied, an independent film about a teen who's abused by his father and teased by kids at school. The bullying causes the young man to be placed in a "homicide to suicide situation" at the end of the movie, Beamon says.
"It's really graphic, but it touches the nerves when you see how far bullying can go and what's happening on the other side and what creates problems," Beamon says.
Beamon and others discussed the effects of bullying and how it can trigger low self-esteem, depression, homicides, and suicides during the foundation's fourth annual "Living the Dream Telethon" in April at Hickory Ridge Mall.
Memphis music stars including Drumma Boy, the Bar-Kays, Lil' Peanut, and American Idol contestants Lil' Rounds and Keya Johnson were among those at the event. The telethon's goal was to bring awareness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s efforts and to promote the goals in his "I Have a Dream" speech: racial and economic equality. More than 800 people attended, helping to raise more than $10,000.
The money will go toward creating an indoor amusement park and community center dubbed the "Gift Center." It will have an indoor roller-coaster similar to Nintendo's Mario Cart Land. The park will also include a 1,000-seat theater that will show movies and be a space for plays and performances. Other planned amenities: a digital education center with online computers, an auto-recording studio, a laser tag labyrinth, and two restaurants.
The group is seeking assistance from Malco Theatres, Nintendo of America, and other corporate sponsors. Beamon says proposals have been submitted to Black Entertainment Television and the Starbucks Coffee Company to help fund construction.
The center would be in located in South Memphis, near the former Longview Middle School. Beamon says he thinks the facility will bring camaraderie and diversity to the area, as well as economic benefits.
"It's going to bring about a huge economic boost to that area," Beamon says. "We see it as a long-range plan that will help with development, job placement, and crime reduction. Some people may be reluctant to travel out there at first. But the way we're marketing it, we're involving a lot of different people. I think [the Gift Center] will start chipping away at a lot of racial boundaries."
Other Heal the Hood projects include a quarterly comic book,"The Wake Up Tour Evolution," that animates life-altering experiences that Heal the Hood staff have seen in the youth they serve. The next edition of the comic is slated to be released in June and will come with a CD. The group also plans to release another CD this year, along with a book, and two independent films. They're sponsoring a celebrity basketball game this summer and spearheading mentoring programs and leadership training.
A comic art studio is planned for Hickory Ridge Mall this fall for kids interested in art. The students will attend an eight-week course to learn the fundamentals of creating a comic book and comic art.
Sixteen-year-old Darrius Hill says he is grateful.
"[Heal the Hood] can change your life and show you a new path," says Hill, a student at Lake Cormorant High School in Mississippi. "It shows you that drugs, alcohol, and all that don't have to be the only ways to have fun. There are other pathways that we can go down to have a great, fun, and successful life."
"It's not about politics, fame, or fortune," Beamon says. "It's being able to reach these kids and turn the energy around in our city. Our kids and young adults are hungry to do something about the problems that they're facing. But if they're not introduced to something that's going to help their future, they lose hope. We have to figure out a way to reintroduce hope and invest in that."