“A lot of people tell me ‘You need to change your image, take your golds out.’ But I never want to get lost in the sauce, I never want to be who I’m not. This is who I really am.”
Enter Charles Lee with a mouth full of golds.
Charles Lee is the owner of That’s My Dog, a hot dog restaurant on West Jeff Davis Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama. Dillon and I are sitting with Charles in the back of his restaurant for our conversation, a visibly older building with bright red tables, poster signage, and a black and white checkered floor reminiscent of older times. The hot dogs, by the way, are exceptional.
The South isn’t home to Charles. In fact, he was born in the city of Chicago, Illinois and lived there until he was 13 years old. His mother decided to move Charles and his siblings to Montgomery, Alabama after he was shot in the chest. To understand who Charles is now, it is crucial to hear his entire story, and to hear it directly from him. Dillon and I ask him to shed light on his early years.
“What you see in the media is only halfway true. Growing up in Chicago is a total difference from here. [In Chicago], there was nobody. When crack came, it hit Chicago hard. I think that’s the main root of the problem. Most kids are really raising themselves. You can find any 12 or 13 year old with a gun in Chicago. With me, selling drugs at 11, I never once thought to myself, ‘Man, this is super cool, I’m selling drugs!’ An opportunity was presented to me and I took it because it made sense. My mother and my father were both crackheads. So, what was I gonna do? It’s hard to come back from that, because no one cares.”
“I never once thought to myself, ‘Man, this is super cool, I’m selling drugs!’ An opportunity was presented to me and I took it because it made sense. My mother and my father were both crackheads. So, what was I gonna do?”
A couple of hours before we are scheduled to meet with Charles, a shooting occurs outside of Bellingrath Middle School, a little over a mile away from That’s My Dog. Ja’Querria Timmons, a bright 14 year old student at Bellingrath, is shot once in the chest by another child while she waits for a ride home from school. For Charles, it is a sign that the world he grew up in, one of adult decisions made by small children, of risky behavior and little guidance, is not so far away. Charles is honest that moving to Montgomery, and then to Florida, didn’t suddenly make things better after his tumultuous childhood.
Of all the places Charles has lived, Pensacola Beach is easily his favorite, but he admits that at 18, he wasn’t able to handle the freedom of the carefree, open waters and found himself thrust into the mouth of the unforgiving criminal justice system. As someone who was a stronghold for his loved ones, going to prison for a year sent shockwaves of loss through his family. For him, it was a chance to come to terms with his childhood and make a commitment to better the lives of children in similar situations upon release.
Charles’s story, one that he tells resolutely, isn’t a tool for gaining the pity of others, but a means to connect with youth he feels are often misunderstood.
“When I was that age, I didn’t ever think about consequences. I would have probably killed someone, and I know that because I was shot. Kids aren’t thinking about the repercussions behind shooting someone: that someone has to bury their family or someone has to go to jail. All of that isn’t in their thought process. I know not to take it personally when the kids cuss me out the first time they see me. If I hadn’t gone through those things, I don’t think I would have sympathy for the kids in that situation now.”
What Charles communicates to us is backed up by research. Children’s brains are malleable and fundamentally different from adults – the part of the brain governing behavior is still developing and juveniles, especially in environments where toxic stress is high, can be more impulsive, have a decreased ability to self-regulate, and are more likely to take risks without considering the long-term consequences. Fortunately, we know that guidance from adults makes a significant difference in the developing child’s brain and subsequently their potential to be a successful, well-adjusted adult.
“If I hadn’t gone through those things, I don’t think I would have sympathy for the kids in that situation now.”
That’s why Charles and his nonprofit That’s My Child are a significant asset for at-risk youth in Montgomery. In 2012, That’s My Child was born. That’s My Child (TMC) is a youth organization founded by Charles with the following mission:
To mentor our youth through arts and entrepreneurship while giving them a safe place to develop talent and learn new skills to become tomorrow’s productive citizens.
That’s My Child provides arts classes to kids in the West Montgomery area including dance, baking, poetry, yoga, and many others. In addition to the classes taught, That’s My Child offers Barbershop Book Clubs, a sustained mentoring program for high school aged boys called Gents II Gentlemen, and other activities that TMC staff dream up and put into action. That’s the elevator pitch, but to hear Charles tell it is an entirely different experience, and likely the reason why he grips people so strongly.
I ask Charles why he thinks he’s able to mobilize people so effectively.
“I have a two part story. Because when I tell people from the hood the first part of my story, they can give less than a fuck, because they see this shit every day. What impresses them, what awes them is, “Damn, you a business owner now?” Now they’re wowed. The other part is, when I tell the uppity people, “Oh, I own That’s My Dog,” and they’re like “Oh, I own 10 businesses.” But when I tell them about my childhood, they’re shocked. It’s just so funny, how [my story] speaks to different people… When people talk to me, they don’t feel like they’ve heard the same elevator speech 30 times before. They feel like ‘Oh okay, he’s a genuine person. He ain’t even polished. He ain’t even pronouncing a lot of this stuff right. Let’s see what he got going on.’”
"When people talk to me, they don’t feel like they’ve heard the same elevator speech 30 times before. They feel like ‘Oh okay, he’s a genuine person. He ain’t even polished. He ain’t even pronouncing a lot of this stuff right. Let’s see what he got going on.’”
In Early April 2017, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Southern Progress released a report titled, “As the South Grows: On Fertile Soil” detailing the lack of philanthropic activity in the deep South. In the state of New York, large foundations granted the equivalent of $995 per person, while in Alabama, grantors funded at the rate of only $130 per person. In the Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, power-building in disenfranchised communities is challenged by the low rate of foundation funding: a neglectful $41 per person.
The conditions for nonprofit growth in Montgomery are grim, but hardy people like Charles and his partner Jonathan Peterson (JP) show us that nonprofits can thrive regardless of the systemic barriers to funding that stand in their way. Nearly weekly, Charles shares some new success for That’s My Child – he casually mentions they’ve won a surprise grant, a mystery funder has donated to his cause, or he has won yet another award for his work with youth. He shares this information with modesty and childlike incredulity, as though he doesn’t have a clue why people give to him or rally around him to see his vision succeed, but his power is readily apparent.
Right now, That’s My Child is working on renovating a huge building on West Fairview Avenue that was donated to them by a generous community member named Frank Garrett. Their goal is to provide a community center called The S.P.O.T (Students Pouring Out Talent) for the kids in West Montgomery who often don’t have many positive outlets in their free time. For That’s My Child, this building renovation will be a huge undertaking but one they feel has been years in the making.
"I just feel like this is what I can contribute to the earth."
That’s My Child serves over 100 kids annually through their various programs, but hopes to increase that number once the S.P.O.T is complete. At this point, the summer program participants are quickly outgrowing their current home at Chisholm Community Center. When we visited the summer program one Wednesday afternoon, we met a sweaty Charles and JP in the middle of a game of basketball and got to observe the end of a dance class full of grinning girls who couldn’t wait to pose for the camera.
There, we ask Charles what the kids have done for him and his vision for TMC.
“[The kids are] the very, very, very best part of my life. I don’t mean to sound cliché. One of the kids from the program came up to me yesterday and asked me if I was going to his graduation. He’s graduating from high school and going to college. Nobody in my family ever thought college was an option. I could have a bad day, a terrible day, but everybody in my neighborhood knows who I am. All I gotta do is pull up in my driveway, and I hear ‘Coach Lee! I wanna show you something!’ or ‘Coach Lee! Check this out!’ If I can expose these children to new things, like creating a television show or showing them how to become entrepreneurs, I just feel like this is what I can contribute to the earth.”
Charles Lee has contributed so much to the city of Montgomery, but he isn't done yet.
To find out how you can volunteer with That's My Child or donate to their efforts to provide a safe space for Montgomery youth, visit http://www.thatsmychildmgm.org/ or email email@example.com.
- A. E.