On tough streets, he's a jobs crusader
By SASHA TALCOTT
LARGO -- Fred Marshall makes eye contact with Gerald Gardner across the white plastic patio table. Glancing at his notes, he asks the question that could be the deal-breaker.
"So why did you leave your last job?"
Gardner wears sandals, baggy shorts and an oversized T-shirt. He's 34, he has two kids, and his driver's license was suspended because he did not make child-support payments on time. When he answers Marshall, his voice is clear; and he speaks with assurance. More than anything, he wants a job.
"I got in a little trouble in my last job, and I was fired," Gardner explains. He pauses, then adds: "I'd like to have a home, to raise a family. Like an American ought to do. Like a man ought to do."
Marshall says, "Well, I appreciate your honesty, Gerald. You'll do anything to get there. I like that."
Marshall conducted the recent mock interview as part of his larger effort to teach job skills to Ridgecrest's unemployed young black men.
Unpaid and unfunded by grants or agencies, Marshall's effort amounts to a one-man crusade. Friends have nicknamed it the "Marshall Plan." Door to door. Street corner to street corner. His message: Don't ever give up. It's not worth dying before you're 25.
During the summer, Marshall put out the word to the young men on the streets in this historically black community west of Ulmerton Road: Get everybody you can and meet me on Baskins Crossing. We've got something important to discuss.
About 35 came, some smoking cigarettes or packing guns beneath their baggy shorts. In the middle of the road, Marshall led them in a prayer. Then Marshall started handing out job applications.
"I got all of the drug dealers together and said, "We don't have to die,' " Marshall said. "A lot of people don't like to deal with the people on the streets. I say, to better my community, I have to start at the bottom and work my way to the top."
In the mock interview sessions, Marshall said, some shuffled in late, wearing oversized gold jewelry and baggy jeans slung low around their waists. They kept their eyes down, trained from years of survival in the streets. When asked a question, they stuttered and mumbled a barely audible response.
Playing the role of interviewer, Marshall instructed the young men to keep their heads up. When asked about their background, he told them to always tell the truth -- even if it ultimately costs them the job.
As the weeks and months have dragged on and the economy has soured, many of Marshall's protegees have gotten discouraged. Some have quit filling out applications, taking remedial high school classes or calling employers to beg for that one magic chance that would turn their lives around.
They have decided that it is easier to be in the streets than to be rejected again.
"People say, "The door is open;' but it's not open," Marshall said. "People don't give them a chance. After you've done your time, my God, when do you get to be a human again?"
For all his efforts, Marshall only has managed to get two people hired so far. And one got fired.
Still, Marshall said, he refuses to give up. If he can help one person find a job, get his GED and give up the lucrative drug trade that is tearing this neighborhood apart, he said, he will have succeeded.
In interviews, a half-dozen unemployed men throughout the neighborhood voiced the same sentiment: They would work any job on earth if it would get them off the streets.
On a recent Friday morning in Ridgecrest, 23-year-old Antwan Anderson sat with friends outside as Marshall drove up in his new red Dodge Ram. He tooted the horn and Anderson came up to the car window to greet him.
Anderson, who dropped out of Seminole High School in 11th grade, went through Marshall's job-skills tutorial and has filled out several job applications.
"He had us feeling like we were somebody and that we were worth having a job," Anderson said.
But months later, he still has no job and no prospects of getting one. He said he has almost decided to give up.
Marshall pointed out that Anderson already has three strikes against him: His two front teeth are gold. He wears his hair in cornrows. And he's black.
"You've got a lot of people around here literally frustrated," Marshall said. "What else can they do but turn to the streets?"
For years, activists have lobbied against the "last hired, first fired" phenomenon that haunts low-income minority communities like Ridgecrest. Now, as the economy sours, dozens of Ridgecrest's young people find themselves without work.
Many dropped out of high school. Others are ex-felons with drug, burglary or weapons-related convictions that would make even the most philanthropic employer think twice about hiring them.
About six years ago, Marshall witnessed the murder of a neighborhood boy on the corner of 119th Street and Ulmerton Road. A few years before that, drug dealers killed an 18-year-old man that Marshall was trying to help.
From that day on, Marshall made a vow: He promised himself he would not live to see more kids killed in his neighborhood. He would rather die trying to get the young men off the street.
"I explained to them that everything doesn't come to you on your doorstep," Marshall said. "You have to get up and chase after it."
Bill Mobley, a job placement specialist for the Urban League's minority skills bank, said Marshall has won the respect of many in the community.
"He's just like a mentor to a lot of those kids," Mobley said. "After Fred changed his life around, he's become a real role model to the kids in the community here."
Willie Fred Marshall was born in 1966 in Clearwater. His father worked in sanitation for the city of Belleair and ran a lawn-cutting business on the side, while his mother worked in a factory and cleaned houses.
Kicked out of school in eleventh grade, Marshall ignored the warnings of his churchgoing father and turned to drugs. After bouncing in and out of jail, accumulating a half-dozen or so drug and weapons charges, Marshall went to drug rehab. It didn't work.
But 12 years ago, Marshall rediscovered his Christian faith and gave up his life on the streets. He got his GED. He persuaded his wife, whom he had dated since sixth grade, to come back to him.
In job interviews, Marshall plunked his rap sheet on the desk between him and the interviewers, leaving no surprises for the background check he knew they would perform.
Astounded, the interviewers would look at the burly 5-foot-10-inch, 220-pound black man in front of them. "Is this you?" they would ask in surprise.
Marshall would look them in the eye without flinching. "That used to be me," he would reply.
It took him more than a year to land his first job. He now works six days a week at two different jobs.
The 36-year-old father of three lives in a small but cozy home on Taylor Lake Circle with dishes drying near the sink and a shelf full of his children's sports trophies displayed proudly in the living room. He tends roses and azaleas in his garden. He dreams that, one day, his 16-year-old son will make it to the NFL.
Fred Jr., the star quarterback at Largo High School, said his father attends all of his football games, yelling directions, suggestions and support from the stands. Back when Fred Jr. was 5, Marshall used to map out football offenses on paper, asking his son to tell him which defense could counter it.
"He tells me he don't want me on the streets," said Fred Jr., a high school junior who already has received dozens of letters from universities expressing an interest in him. "I have sports. I have a chance to go to college and play football or basketball. He knows being on the streets would mess me up."
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