HOLLAND, Mich. -- His former life as a gang member in Chicago cost him his wife, his home, and his best friend, who fell victim to gun violence. After hitting rock bottom, Willie Watt has made it his mission to give other people a chance to leave life on the streets, a chance he wish he would have had for his own life.
That’s why Watt founded Escape Ministries in Holland.
Escape Ministries offers kids all sorts of programs; one of their solutions is providing jobs for teenagers. The organization says there are not enough jobs for kids under 16, and because of that some get involved with selling drugs. Entering the vicious cycle of dealing drugs makes it hard for the kids to leave the gang life behind.
Watt knows exactly what these kids are up against, because he used to be one of them.
Juan Ramirez joined the program so he can have a chance of getting a higher education. He said he will put away that money for his future.
“I want to go to college,” said Juan.
The Escape Ministries jobs program will last 10 weeks. The kids will work three days a week at a certain location with a supervisor.
Some teens need the money to help out family at home, to keep themselves out of trouble, or they are looking to get out of the gang lifestyle.
“A lot of these kids have battle fatigue, because they have to fight constantly, even at home or in the streets,” said Watt. "So if you got to fight like that, are you really going to be a good kid, even though there's no such thing as a bad kid?"
Watt's street cred is a testament to his ability to run this program successfully.
“My father and his cousin started the Black Gang Disciples in Chicago. I came from a gang-related family.”
Watt says last year Escape Ministries had more than 120 kids go through the jobs program.
“There was seven different gangs, seven different ethnicities from seven different schools, all in the same job program,” he said.
Watt says in the program they build relationships with rival gang members that translate into the streets and help reduce crime and violence.
“If you looked in the class today, you would see a lot of different kids who would never be in the same room with each other without fighting. Now, all of a sudden they have to sit together and get along to be part of the program.”
Watt says giving kids a job gives them something to keep them focused, and it's the beginning of a successful future.
“A lot of people didn't know I had this separate life," said Watt, "that I was selling drugs, that I had been shot before the age of 13. I escaped Chicago because my best friend died in front of me trying to find a different life. But my gang life followed me."
Watt says he didn’t have a place like Escape Ministries to turn, and that’s the main reason he started it. He hopes to give opportunity to all the kids in Holland who want job experience.
The teens have some extra motivation. The hardest working team will get a free trip to Great America amusement park, and the hardest working individual will win a donated car.
Escape Ministries provides other programs, such as homework help, food pantry, boxing club, housing, jobs, and many other programs.