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'Faces at the bottom of the well'
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Mad Dad volunteers, led by chapter president V. J. Smith, second from left, at their south Minneapolis offices before heading out to Park and Franklin avenues on their weekly Saturday night effort to speak with drug dealers. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
Local authorities say the two-decade-old war on drugs has not diminished the availability of illicit drugs. That makes the job of groups trying to divert young African American men from the drug trade more difficult. One of those groups is Mad Dads. Mad Dads is an acronym for Men Against Destruction-Defending Against Drugs and Social-Disorder. The 13-year-old organization was started in Omaha. It's headquartered in Florida. The Minneapolis chapter uses prayer and straight talk to get men off the street.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Two years ago Gary Cunningham, director of Hennepin County's Pilot City Health Center on Minneapolis' near north side delivered a sobering assessment of the condition of the county's young black men: Nearly half are arrested each year.

They are nearly twice as likely to die from violence as young white men. A smaller number -- Cunningham calls them the "faces at the bottom of the well" -- are even worse off. They are so low on society's agenda that nearly everyone has given up on them. These men, Cunningham says, are the people Mad Dads is trying to reach.

"The ones that are on drugs on the street that have nowhere to live. They're working with those folks that no one else can reach within our society," according to Cunningham.

"A face at the bottom of the well" describes Melvin Anderson's life three years ago before he joined the ranks of Mad Dads.

Anderson grew up in a Chicago housing project. He says his mother treated him well. But his stepfather did not. "I had got so tired and so full of anger that I had shot my stepdaddy, which is my mom's husband, and almost got 17 years in prison."

Anderson was 15. Instead of prison, the courts sent him to a suburban Twin Cities treatment program. Two years later, he says, he was out on the streets.

"I was a gang leader, I was a drug seller, I was a sexaholic, I had no direction, I had no purpose, my mind was distorted, I had no family, I was just out there alone," Anderson says.

Three years ago, Anderson says, his life hit rock bottom. "I was doing sherm embalming fluid; embalming fluid, that's what they do in dead people, so that let's you know I was already out there. I was dying."

Anderson says his addiction to formaldehyde -- embalming fluid -- was so debilitating he'd lost control of some of his bodily functions.

"I found myself on my knees in the middle of my living room, peeing on the floor, praying to God, asking for deliverance, because I was tired," he says.

Melvin Anderson met V. J. Smith, the president of Mad Dads, through the Minneapolis church Smith attends. Smith, 38, joined Mad Dads as a reaction to his own behavior when he was young.

"I'm a former criminal. I did some things in society that were negative and I turned my life around, and I did that because I knew I had to give back to the community at some point and I made a decision to do that," he says.

Mad Dads volunteers recruit men through churches or on the job. One of their most visible activities is a weekly visit to Minneapolis street corners where drugs are sold. They ask passersby to join them in prayer.

Mad Dads volunteers -- men and women -- are zipped into green-and-black parkas on a bitterly cold Saturday night. Hoods swallow their heads and most of their face. MAD DADS director V. J. Smith leads the group to the corner of Franklin and Park Avenues on Minneapolis' near south side.

The area's easy access to freeways make it a destination for drug buyers and a haven for the street corner dealers who supply them.

Smith and the volunteers ask passersby or men standing around if they'll join them in prayer.

Across the street, two men watch. Their reaction, like the night, is cold. Undeterred, the volunteers cross Park Avenue and ask the two to join in a prayer. Smith gathers the men and volunteers into a huddle.

Smith hands the men a card with Mad Dads' number and the location of their Tuesday night meeting.

A Tuesday night meeting attracts about a dozen and a half men, most of them African American. There's a vigorous discussion about men getting along with women. The leader is John Turnipseed. He directs the Center for Fathering, a partner organization with Mad Dads.

Turnipseed allows the men to talk at length. They vent frustrations over money, jobs, visitation rights with children.

In his office, a few steps away from the meeting room, Smith lays out the principal behind Mad Dads mission. "Basically what we offer is the opportunity to change. We don't have the funds, there is no funds out there to give fathers tons of money to do what they need to do. We know we can never do that. But what we can offer is a circle where the fathers can get involved with each other and support each other with resources and also partnership, a sense belonging."

Mad Dads also sponsors a Boy Scout troop. Volunteers visit schools and the county juvenile jail as part of their effort to deter young people from a life of crime.

Hennepin County's Gary Cunningham says Mad Dads is one of only a handful of organizations trying to reach men living outside society's margins. He says the group's religious orientation works because many of the men it's trying to reach were raised in the church. Cunningham says Mad Dads and groups like it are a success but are overwhelmed by the need.

"Here you've got Mad Dads operating on a shoestring showing some significant results. What we need to be able to do is scale that up in a way that really starts transforming these young men that come from some of the most horrendous life circumstances that one can imagine," he says.

Melvin Anderson, the former drug addict and gang member, who joined Mad Dads three years ago gave up his lawbreaking ways when he was 22. Now 25, married, the father of a one-year-old son, and looking for work, Anderson says all young men like him who chose the wrong path in life eventually discover they want out.

"They tugging, they struggling inside, they want to get up out of that mess, they don't want to be there, they want to stop selling that dope. They want a job, they want to get themselves together, but they (are) being tugged. It's like two people standing inside them, fighting. They (are)fighting with themselves," says Anderson.

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