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Finding The Way Back On Track

By Helen Ubinas
July 28, 2005

Getting the contract at Nelton Court has been a big boost for Carlton Forbes' fledgling construction business. But watching his eyes dart from side to side while we talked outside the housing complex this week, I realized that this place holds as many ghosts as opportunities for him.

"I sold here, got arrested here and paralyzed a guy here," Forbes says.

When he got out of prison nearly five years ago, Forbes said, he made it known that he wanted to apologize to Karud Brown, the guy he shot and paralyzed in 1990. He wasn't surprised when word came back that Brown wasn't interested.

So even though he doesn't come right out and say it, what he's been trying to do ever since is make up for ruining a life by maybe saving a few, his own included.

That's why he teamed up with Johnny Vasquez, a housing authority employee who's trying to exorcise a few ghosts of his own: His parents died of AIDS. He was shot and he served six years in prison on drug charges.

A few weeks ago, Forbes and Vasquez approached the housing authority with an idea for employing kids from Nelton Court during the summer. A conversation later, they had the Nelton Court Summer Youth Program up and running.

Amazing how quickly things can come together when egos and paychecks aren't at stake.

It's not a big program, just 11 kids making minimum wage and two adult supervisors making about a buck and a half more through a $10,000 grant. Vasquez helps supervise while doing his own job. Forbes trains them and keeps an eye out for kids he thinks might make good future employees.

Harold Gowder fits the bill.

It doesn't hurt that Forbes and Vasquez can see a little bit of themselves in him. He's hit a few bumps in his 18 years: He served two months in 2004 for selling drugs, served another month just recently for being in a stolen car; he was shot in the hip and arm on his way to school in December.

"You remind me of someone," Vasquez told Gowder when he offered him the job.

And just that morning Forbes gave him the "step it up" talk he reserves for those he thinks have something special in them.

"He does a good job," he says. "But I wanted to remind him that you always have to work hard."

If enthusiasm is any indication, I'd say Gowder was a natural.

Guaranteed, the wall Gowder showed off inside the Nelton Court community center will never be scrutinized this closely again.

To most who pass it, it's a wall; a freshly painted off-white wall the more astute might notice, but a wall nonetheless.

But not to Gowder.

It's the first project he worked on, Gowder told me Tuesday. There were others helping paint the room that day, but the part we inspected - that's all his.

"I did from here to there," he says, smiling proudly.

Wednesday morning, he told me that they were just starting to paint the buildings red; actually auburn ridge red.

Might take a while, he said happily, which could mean they'll have to keep them on longer. But even if they don't, Gowder figures he's learned skills to get another job, maybe start his own business.

And why not? The guys in front of him are proof that you can start off on the wrong track and find your way onto the right one.

I hesitate to say this only because the media - me included - are too quick to anoint "community leaders" and too slow to call them out when they become ineffective.

But these guys may well represent the new wave of leadership the city needs to reach kids who are, if we're being honest with ourselves, not responding to the usual suspects.

"I see a future in this job," Gowder told me.

And I see a future in guys like Forbes and Vasquez.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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