With names like Cash Money Brothers, Broad Day Shooters, Make It Happen Boyz, Addicted to Green, Da Broadway Bullies and From Da Zoo, gangs are swarming Harlem’s streets with police precincts reporting nearly 30 youth crews in northern Manhattan. Not one to be intimidated, Col. Gregory Collins wants to save the young people of Harlem from the gangs and the death and violence they bring.
Collins has spent most of his life with the National Guard at the historic 369th Harlem Armory. He came to the Armory in 1978, when he was 14. He is a commander and an officer in the guard. He founded the cadet program, Harlem Youth Marines, in 1982 as a way to save young men and women from the dangers of the streets by using structure, discipline and love to teach valuable life lessons and offer a much-needed sense of family. This valuable program will be displaced as the Armory is slated to undergo some 20 months of renovations. Collins talked to the AmNews about his beloved cadet program and his concern for the fate of his kids.
“We do something positive for the youth and we support our veterans in whatever they need. We’ve done details for the military National Guard. We are part of that family. Everything about us is about discipline and precision drill. They look to us to carry out some of the functions and to show that they are supporting what we do. They request us to be pallbearers,” he said.
“I am very much concerned because of what happened to Ackeem Green, my stepson. Last June 3, he was shot and killed in the basketball court at 129th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. while playing basketball. He was 25 and had been with the program since he was 15. He was a mentor and part of the honor guard,” he said.
Green’s death has made Collins more determined than ever. He recently attended a meeting at the State Office Building in Harlem to discuss the gang violence. The gangs are once again taking over the neighborhood. Goodfellas was responsible for the death of Green.
“It’s gotten worse,” Collins said. “It’s about turf, colors, nonsense. We are a gang-prevention program. Every time I think about what happened to Ackeem, it bothers me because we can do more. We want to do more, but nobody is paying attention to us,” he said.
“Every community should have a cadet program. I think people are not educated enough as to what cadet programs are all about. Yes, young men and women are influenced, and if they decide to join the military, that’s the decision they make. We’re not about recruiting kids to go into the military. We’re about structure and discipline. Whichever career path they choose after they finish high school, that’s on them. A lot of them do choose to go into the military and have been very successful. The majority of our cadets go into law enforcement,” Collins said.
Every precinct in Harlem, as well as the 32nd, 28th, 26th and 30th precincts, all have officers who were once cadets in Collins’ program. Members of the Harlem Youth Marines have been as young as 7 years old. The oldest member is 35. Since its inception, more than 2,000 kids have come through.
“We start them at 7 and get them to stay through high school. They became good, productive citizens. The Harlem Youth Marines now has chapters in Niagara Falls and in Reading, Pa.,” Collins said.
The group has enjoyed once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. In 1992, the cadets marched in President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parade. They were also part of the escort honor guards for Princess Maxima of the Netherlands and England’s Prince Andrew.
The program works. A mother brought in her 10-year-old daughter and complained that she was behaving badly in school. Collins took her right in. Students must maintain their grades as part of the program and Collins checks their report cards. The kids clearly love being part of the Harlem Youth Marines.
Twelve-year-old Jaisean Crumble of Staten Island is a brand new recruit. He heard about it from his dad, who used to come when he was young. “It’s good. I like how we practice our drills” and learn how to be a leader. Jaisean says he’s learned “how to behave.”
Fifteen-year-old Gabrielle Castro of Harlem has been in the program for three years. “It gets me off the streets and we do a lot of sports here, and we learn a lot about the military. As we stay in this program, we progress in terms of maturity levels and grades and your personal goals in life. When you get the concept of being in this program, you learn how to act like a real man and become a statistic, but become a good statistic. My grades went from 60s and 70s to 80s and 90s. My average is a 92,” he proudly added.
Fifteen–year-old Louis Lubin is from France. He and his dad moved to Brooklyn, where he learned about the program. He joined in September of last year and has been promoted twice since then. “So far, it’s been pretty great. It teaches you how to be a leader. Leading by example is the whole idea behind this program,” he said.
Twenty-year-old Denzel Brown has been in the program for five years. His job is to bring in new recruits. He was in the process of signing up a new cadet. “I’m trying to start a military sports team in Harlem. I want to start at the bottom and work everybody in the team as one, as a family, as a unit. What I want to do for the youth of Harlem is give them a second family. I can build this family new and get the youth off the streets. Today, I’m on duty. Tomorrow, I’ll be on duty recruiting kids. I go out into the streets and playgrounds and schoolsundefinedas many as possible in Brooklyn, New York, anywhere. I go borough to borough to borough and get kids that want to play military sports and learn what we’re about,” Brown said.
Collins is looking for a new home for the group, because they are soon set to be displaced with the upcoming internal renovations at the Armory. He concedes that finding a new home will be a challenge because the group has no financing and many youth organizations already have their own programs. Losing the Harlem Youth Marines would be a real blow to the kids who depend on it.
“Funding has always been a challenge because it is wrongly assumed to be a military program, while in fact, it is a cadet program. The program is associated with the military, authorized and recognized by the U.S. Marine Corp, but is not funded by them. This program gets involved in the social dynamics, behavioral problems, school problems and tries to solve them through a program of discipline and structure. Some of those who were most reluctant to join the program have become the most dedicated cadets, wanting more than the once-a-week meeting,” he said.
“Every block in Harlem has a gang,. I can motivate them. I can dedicate them to educate them,” Collins said. “If a young man or woman can sit still for a block of instructions for 45 minutes to an hour, they can learn,” he concluded.