St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Rough past inspires him to keep kids on track

Melvin Forman has faith in the kids he's in charge of at the Boys & Girls Club. Says one: ''He talks sense to us.''

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2002


Melvin Forman has faith in the kids he's in charge of at the Boys & Girls Club. Says one: "He talks sense to us."

INTERBAY -- When he was 7, a freak accident left him blind in one eye.

In middle school, he saw his best friend killed by a hit-and-run driver and another friend gunned down.

At 18, he lost his mother to multiple sclerosis. His father was long since gone.

Somehow, Melvin Forman survived.

Now he uses his painful past to brighten other kids' futures.

"I think I can change the outcome of what they're doing, because of what happened to me," he said.

Forman, 34, directs a Boys & Girls Club chapter housed at Rembrandt apartments. The blue building with steel bars over the doors is an oasis for 80 to 90 children, from first graders to high schoolers.

There, some learn right from wrong, mostly Forman's doing.

"He talks sense to us," said Derrick Dillon, 8, a student at Lanier Elementary School.

The Boys & Girls Club is a national organization that serves millions of children, many from troubled neighborhoods. Kids get help with homework, learn responsibility and practice talking out problems instead of fighting.

Forman began working at Rembrandt 10 years ago. He became director six years ago. Helping children came naturally, he said, having grown up with nine brothers and sisters and a pile of cousins.

"I was No. 7 on the totem pole," he said. "I grew up babysitting."

That was the easy part.

He learned about life in a rough pocket of Sulphur Springs. Drugs were part of the landscape. Tragedy traveled in waves.

Kids had nothing better to do than throw dirt clods at each other. That was how Forman lost his left eye.

"I just looked around the tree at the wrong time," he said with a shrug.

Seven surgeries relieved the pain. Still, scars remain.

His mother's death cast him into depression for a year. When he pulled out of it, he began attending the University of South Florida.

He credits his recovery to a "strong will."

Forman said he has always been cool-headed. Once, a grease fire erupted on the stove in his family's apartment. His brothers and sisters shrieked. He retrieved a cup of dirt from outside and put it out.

At Rembrandt, he sometimes gets a tongue lashing from parents, upset if their kids miss homework or get into fights. He said he takes it in stride.

"I'm a firm believer in letting people vent," he said.

As a kid, Forman attended Boys & Girls Club chapters in Ybor City and on Sligh Avenue. Back then, enrollment cost 50 cents a year. Now kids pay $125 for the school year, and another $100 for the summer.

A small price to pay, Forman said, for a place to go and something constructive to do.

One afternoon last week, chaos filled the Rembrandt center. The first wave was arriving after school. Kids ran. Kids yelled. Center workers calmly restored order.

"Come on little man," Forman said, gingerly leading a boy by the hand, away from a video game and to a seat on the floor.

"How's everybody doing?" Forman asked the group.

"Fine," came the response.

"HOW'S EVERYBODY DOING?" he said, turning up the volume.

"FIIIINE," came the revved-up response.

Ten minutes later, Forman was keeping a roomful of kids focused on homework, while he focused on another little boy.

"When you start a sentence, it's supposed to be what?" he asked, looking at a line of sentences on notebook paper.

The first letter of a sentence should be capitalized, he told the child.

"You'll get it," he encouraged.

The kids are itching to play pool or foosball, but they know from Forman that it's work first, fun later.

Forman doesn't often share his personal story with club members, but word gets around.

Laura Connell, who has four children enrolled at Rembrandt's club, says Forman's background gives him patience for children who have attention deficit disorder, including her son.

Forman "refuses to give up hope," she said. Patrea Denis, 15, calls Forman "an inspiration."

Denis, a sophomore at Robinson High School, has been coming to the club for seven years. Last year she thought about quitting as head of its step-dancing group. Some kids weren't learning the moves, she said. Forman urged her to reconsider.

"He said, 'Keep going, they'll catch on,'" Denis said. "And he was right."

Forman knows he's helped kids. But they've helped him, too, he said.

When he first took the job, he was sensitive about his eye. He didn't like talking to people. Their stares made him uncomfortable. Even now, he habitually tilts his face to the left to keep people from looking.

But the kids stared. They asked questions.

"I knew they were going to ask me 50,000 times," he said, laughing.

Talking eased the doubts. Now Forman frequently speaks to business groups on behalf of the Boys & Girls Club and the United Way, the club's main financial contributor.

The kids, he said, "have done a lot to help my inner self."

Earlier this year, they got word that Forman was thinking about leaving. Kids called him at home, left messages on his answering machine. Don't leave, they said. Not yet.

Forman didn't erase the messages. He listens to them from time to time.

And he decided to stay a little longer.

"They're kind of like my kids," he said. "When they call me they say, 'Hey Melvin, this is your second daughter.'"

Forman's office is a jumble of boxes and old furniture. His wood desk has a cracked front. The cabinet has a dent on top.

Last week, a pit bull puppy snoozed on a blanket. A student who found it abandoned asked Forman to take care of it.

"This is my worst thing," he said, holding up a form that must be filled out. "I'd rather be with the kids."

Forman ticks off the names of former club members who have gone on to college because they excelled in sports or academics.

"That in itself has kept me around," he said.

But Forman knows some who didn't make it. Some are in jail.

"You can't help them all," he said.

He prefers to dwell on the positive.

On the wall in his office: a framed newspaper clipping of a University of Kentucky basketball player.

It's Desmond Allison, a former Robinson High School star and Boys & Girls Club alumni.

"He was one of my first," Forman said. "A kid with promise."

Allison has had his ups and downs.

He was suspended from playing at UK after he got a DUI during the school's experiment with a zero-tolerance alcohol policy. He transferred to tiny Martin Methodist College, and is now trying out for NBA scouts.

Two months ago, he visited Forman at the Boys & Girls Club. The kids' eyes lit up when they saw him.

"He's very resilient," Forman said. "He can still live up to his potential."

The picture on the wall is a sign of Forman's faith: It's Allison on the court, slamming home a spectacular dunk.

-- Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

Melvin Forman

OCCUPATION: Director, Boys & Girls Club, Rembrandt branch.

AGE: 34

FAMILY: wife, Saudia; children, Lea'Zelle, 8, and Akeem, 12.

RESIDENCE: Brandon.

PAST LIFE: Track star at Chamberlain High School.

PART-TIME JOB: Garden center at Home Depot in South Tampa.

HOBBIES: Basketball with friends; landscaping his yard.

FAVORITE GETAWAY: Daytona Beach.

FAVORITE SAYING: "Think before you act."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.