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Beloit's Merrill Center helped one young man live by example

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ANN MARIE AMES
January 22, 2008
— Terren Owens said as little as possible.

The 17-year-old’s almond-shaped eyes were shields, and he held each question for a minute, turning it around and looking for the trick before answering.


After all, you’ve got to be careful with reporters. They ask questions like a parole officer.


But then the conversation came around to Terren’ 1-year-old nephew, Angelo, and a smile flickered in his eyes.


It was shining proof that Terren is living for the future.


Terren last fall completed a 12-week program at the Merrill Neighborhood Center, 1428 Wisconsin Ave., Beloit. He chose the program over a few days in juvenile detention.


A similar program to help kids in trouble is being planned for Janesville.


Terren didn’t want to talk about why he’d been arrested last spring. But he was quick to say anyone can choose whether to live a life of crime.


“I wasn’t really a bad kid,” Terren said. “I just made some of the wrong choices. You don’t always choose the right decision. I knew that the more I got in trouble, the worse it would get, and the harder it would be to get out of it.”


Terren wants to be a role model for Angelo, who seldom sees his own dad—just as Terren hardly saw his dad when he was little, he said.


And there’s no time to lose.


Angelo’s already imitating his uncle. After watching Terren wrestle for Beloit Memorial High School, little Angelo comes home and tries the moves himself.


“He’s a pretty smart kid,” Terren said proudly.


Wrestling is one thing that keeps Terren busy and out of trouble, he said. And it’s a good tool for helping repair his reputation for running in the wrong crowd.


“I made a big impression,” Terren said about wrestling in the Jan. 8 match against Janesville Parker. “I didn’t win exactly, but …”


Memorial won by one point that night—the point Terren held onto when he wiggled out of a pin. The win puts Memorial in striking distance of its first dual title since 1999.


The Merrill Center is another tool, Terren said, a place where the vibe is good and the temptations minimal. Although he’s done with the anger management, drug and alcohol and coping classes he took at Merrill, Terren still goes regularly to volunteer and hang out.


It’s a better choice than messing around on the streets, he said.


“I wanted to do something like have a normal life,” Terren said. “I didn’t want to be known as a bad person. I didn’t want to have a bad reputation about me, period.”


---


Michael Ewing, 16, is never going to change his reputation.


He can’t give back the $7,000 of stereo equipment he stole from a rival Chicago gang.


Michael can’t change the fact that 40 members of that gang drove from school to school in Beloit, looking to kill him.


Michael can’t change that at 15, he was about to be charged as an adult with battery.


He can’t change it. But he can move past it.


“I don’t want to be remembered as a gang banger out on the streets, but I can’t be remembered any other way,” Michael said. “But by the time I turn 18 or 19, my reputation can be far behind me.”


Despite popular belief, you can’t change your life on your own, Michael said.


“It’s all up to you to decide to do it,” he said. “But you can’t do it on your own, regardless. It took a lot for me to start changing. The more I tried to do it on my own, the more I kept going back to jail.”


The problem was Michael kept going back to the same old places and situations.


“You’re doing things you shouldn’t be, but you think it’s OK because you’re trying to change,” Michael said.


Beloit’s Merrill Neighborhood Center, 1428 Wisconsin Ave., was the anchor that stopped Michael’s crime cycle.


But it took a long time.


“I’ve been here longer than anyone,” said Michael. “I’ve been through every worker they have.”


For a year, Michael walked in the Merrill Center’s back door, down the hall past seniors playing bingo and teens studying history, and right out the front door.


“Then they couldn’t say I wasn’t here,” he said.


When he finally started going to programs, Michael found a place where he could talk about his day and find new ways of coping with life.


And he found out something about himself.


“I learned I could work every day,” Michael said. “I’ve cleaned this building maybe a hundred times, and I was happy about it. For once, I was doing something positive in my life.”


Michael recently wrote a letter to the Beloit School District, asking to be let back in. He would study at the Merrill Center, he said.


Even though he finished the programs last fall, Michael comes to Merrill regularly to volunteer and visit.


A couple Friday nights a month he cooks dinner, and he and other kids play games or watch TV.


“It’s good to have a place like this where kids, grown-ups ... all people can come and enjoy themselves,” Michael said. “People may say it’s stupid having it in the ’hood. But all the kids that come here are from the ’hood, and we don’t have any problems.”


When asked what he’d learned about himself in the process of giving up the street life, Michael leaned back and blew out a sigh.


Then he let out a laugh that was part nerves, part relief and mostly 16-year-old boy.


“I didn’t think I was going to live this long,” Michael said. “It’s the one thing that really hits me.”



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