Macon NAACP leader seeks greater involvement in youthful lives

The office isn’t big, but it’s home. In fact, it’s the first full-time location the Macon chapter of the NAACP has had in six years.

As soon as chapter President Al Tillman can swap out the framed fine art posters for wall decorations of his own, the transformation of the office will be complete.

“This will increase our access to the community,” Tillman said of the space at the Family Investment Center, a “one-stop shop” run by the Macon Housing Authority that hosts about a dozen community groups in east Macon’s Davis Homes.

Aware that the National Association of Colored People has lost visibility and viability in recent years, Tillman set out immediately when he became president Dec.28, 2007, to increase the civil rights organization’s community partners and its presence in the area. That effort began with Tillman insisting on having a real person always available to answer the chapter’s hot line. Now, with the addition of the new office on Main Street, Tillman is pushing for a new level of involvement.

The chapter is ready to tackle violence, crime and drug use by Macon’s youth, he said. Specifically, Tillman said he’s ready to repay the life-changing guidance and support he received growing up because “something has to change.”

And personal tragedy is no excuse, Tillman said.

“We’ve got to stop using that old excuse, ‘Well, he doesn’t have a father,’ ” he said. “I know you’re angry and mad, but going around shooting and killing, there’s no excuse for that.”

A fatherless child

Tillman knows firsthand the difference an intervening presence can have, especially in the life of a young person who has suffered a great deal.

In 1969, he said, his father was shot dead by police in Atlanta. Fortunately, he was quickly surrounded by family — several uncles assuming the role left empty by his father’s death. They instilled in him a sense of control over his own life and a fear of going to jail. Between the two, he said he stayed out of too much trouble.

What his family started, the military finished. Enlisting in the Army National Reserves, Tillman found discipline and community, but during basic training in September 1990, he was dealt another blow. His brother died.

Shortly after, Tillman was shipped off with the 48th Brigade to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

Looking back, he said this time in the Army helped him keep his emotions together.

“I joined because it was as if all my alternatives were running out,” he said. “It was the best thing that happened to me. It helped me with discipline, with race relations, learning how to get along with all kinds of people.”

That experience has inspired his Youth Challenge initiative, an effort to get community members to sponsor at-risk youth through leadership training — at $10 a child. When Tillman issued the challenge to chapter members, he went another step.

“I told them they couldn’t just come up with some money from their pocket and think they’re done,” he said. “They have to go out into the community and find people to sponsor these young people, too.”

At the most recent count, Tillman said the group has enough sponsors for 49 children.

This isn’t just a strategic move but one of his defining traits.

“My family was all about bringing people together,” Tillman said. “That’s what I want to do.”

Family Investment Center filled with help

In the year and a half since Karen Middleton became the coordinator of the Family Investment Center, it has filled up with community programs and organizations ranging from the Phillips Children’s Performing Arts Studio to the River Edge Behavioral Health Center.

“We’re a family, all these partners and me,” Middleton said. “They feel it, and we feel.”

The “it” is a spirit of community redevelopment that reaches beyond the requirements of a grant or mission statement. Every program comes from the heart, she said.

John Hiscox, who runs the Macon Housing Authority, said without these programs, the authority would only be able to serve one need.

“We’re in the sticks and bricks business,” Hiscox said. “But we understood we couldn’t do everything Macon needed us to do with the traditional housing authority parameters. We needed to learn to use other tools.”

Middleton estimates that 1,400 people came through the Family Investment Center in 2009, a jump of almost 30 percent from 2008. When people come in, they can find help with drug addiction, HIV/AIDS testing, job counseling and financial coaching.

Most of all, she said, they find direction and hope.

“You have to provide for the whole person,” she said. “Our goal is to help families become self-sufficient, to set their own goals and eventually buy their own home.”

If the NAACP wasn’t committed to that plan, they never would’ve been invited.

“We’re not in the business of just giving away office space for advocacy groups,” Hiscox said. “They have to sing for their supper.”

After-school effort a ‘well-rounded program’

Tillman beams when he walks into the room where former NFL player Roger Jackson has been running the Motivating Youth program, an after-school program Jackson started in February 2009.

There’s a new flat-screen TV on the wall. A couple of video game systems are hooked up, but they’re turned off because Sportscenter is on.

“What kid wouldn’t want to come here?” Tillman asks rhetorically.

But it isn’t all fun and games. The kids have recess when they first arrive, Jackson said, but that’s because they’ve been “cooped up in school all-day.”

For the hours that follow, the kids have their noses in the books doing homework. The program runs at no cost to the families in Davis Homes thanks to grants and donations, Jackson said.

It was Jackson who recruited Tillman and the NAACP to work with Motivating Youth at the FIC.

“We run a well-rounded program,” Jackson said, “and this is going to be a part of it, helping the young people know what it takes to be successful.”

Pointing to a wall of honor students — Jackson said the program had 41 this quarter — Tillman smiles wide.

“This is what we want more of,” he said. “This is what we want our kids to believe in, that they can do this, too. This is what we’re trying to get our members to help us accomplish.”

Tillman’s 9-year-old daughter, Cindora, is often the spokesperson for the youth movement, he said.

She’s been at his side since he started as chapter president more than two years ago.

She said the opportunity she’s had to learn new skills and learn to lead is one that the Youth Challenge extends to many other children.

“I think it’s very good,” she said. “It teaches kids about the community and helping people. It helps us learn our history so we know what happened in the past.”

To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.