Amar Skinner knows firsthand about the consequences of a street life “miseducation.”
Growing up in Suffolk, Virginia, Skinner said he was dealing drugs before he was a teenager and breaking into gun shops by 13 years old. By the time he turned 19, he was behind bars, starting a nearly 11-year prison sentence for shooting a man in a gunfight.
“The drugs. The robbing. I thought it was survival,” Skinner said. “But it was backwards thinking.”
Today, through several companies and programs he’s launched, Skinner has spent the years since his release helping guide young men and women from what he calls the “death path” to a life path. By pairing them with mentor “coaches” who’ve learned from those mistakes, his programs steer young adults away from the cycle of incarceration by helping them identify and develop success strategies that will lead them to become self-sufficient the right way, he said.
Targeting former convicts and at-risk youth in danger of heading to prison, Skinner said he launched a program to train and connect peer “coaches” a decade ago in his Virginia hometown and in the years since, started The Ex-Felon Entrepreneurship Retail Museum (EFERM) to help them carry out that mission – in doing so helping neighbors take their neighborhoods back.
And through a bond between his family and YMCA Program Director Quan Britt, Skinner hopes to bring that model here to open a location in Johnstown.
During a meeting with approximately 15 city community members Sunday at the YMCA, Skinner outlined the success he’s having in the 90,000-population city of Portsmouth and nearby Suffolk – with the hope that engaged Johnstown residents are willing to help him duplicate that here.
“Every kid is the result of the generation ahead of them,” he said, noting that an active, involved community can make a difference. “If you can get a kid to dream – if they have a goal, it can make a difference. It’s all about helping them find themselves ... and finding better opportunities.”
In Portsmouth, the EFERM center provides tours for people reentering society and works to help them understand why they “messed up” to help them rebuild their lives, he said.
It’s a different experience for every one, he said.
“If they were caught stealing, we’ll get them paired up with someone whose been through it themselves. If it was gun violence, we connect them to someone who overcame it,” Skinner said. “It’s about showing them someone who found the right side of life ... and has the passion to meet them along the way.”
But the program also can lead to jobs on-site or career training, organizers said.
In doing so, the company has become a job creator for his community, providing jobs for ex-felons who often struggle cutting their way through the “red tape” that a rap sheet brings, he said.
It can save both lives and communities, Leroy Skinner said.
Amar’s brother, Leroy, first got introduced to Johnstown 20 years ago when he came to the area as college student and point guard for Mount Aloysius College in Cresson.
He formed a lifelong bond with teammate Quan Britt, a 2000 Mount Aloysius grad who now serves as program director at the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA – and in recent years, their discussions have often turned to Johnstown’s struggles.
Leroy’s message: It takes a whole community to make a change – but it’s possible.
He said he’s the results in places such as Portsmouth.
“If you’re not trying to change things, you’re promoting it,” he told the crowd. And when it means children and grandchildren’s lives could be at stake, “time is of the essence” to start doing something about it.
Britt said he has been talking with the group about launching a Johnstown location for year – to the point they are already exploring spaces.
But the message the men brought with them is important, too, he added.
“It’s about starting a dialogue,” about diverting youth from drugs and violence, Britt said. “And everything we do about it is a step in the right direction.”
Johnstown police interim Chief Chad Miller praised the effort Sunday.
“Any effort that can give information and credibility to the youth of Johnstown that can help them make better decisions, I’m all for it,” said Miller. “And we’re willing to help in any way we can.”