There were four of them, a military commander and three boys, having lunch outside an apartment complex off Cascade Road.
The boys were only 7 or 8 years old, their childhood stalled as they plotted their way out of a neighborhood that stole the young.
“There are three ways of getting out of here, entertainment and athletics,” said Jason, the most outspoken of the three. “I’m not good at sports. I can’t sing, but I can sell drugs.”
Sam Tompkins, who trained Navy Seals to disable bombs, liked to help the young. He paid the boys for doing odd jobs inside his auto parts business at 1180 Utoy Springs Road.
But that day as he listened to the boys, he realized he had to do more. He had to show them that there were other choices. He started Another Way Out, Inc., and, over time, the organization helped thousands of children to stay in school and to graduate from colleges.
Now funding has drastically declined and Tompkins is struggling to keep the program going. Still, it’s not a fight he’s prepared to give up. He knows only too well what can be lost in neighborhoods that force the young to grow up hard and fast.
He turned to look at the little boy whose view of life was already cut short.
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s the third way,” Jason said. “See that new Mercedes? Know who owns it?”
Jason mentioned the name, and Tompkins realized he knew the boy.
“That boy can’t be more than 14 years old. What is he doing with a car? He can’t drive.”
“See that older man?” Jason pointed to a man in his 50s or 60s standing near the car. “That’s his driver.”
That same year in 1992, Tompkins started the non-profit organization.
“Those three kids helped me start it,” Tompkins, 64, said.
AWO grew to have an extensive network of tutors, mentors and volunteers who helped the children to stay focus, improve their grades and strive for greater.
With about half million dollars in funding from companies and corporations such as UPS, General Motors and United Way, AWO partnered with four schools to help more than 1, 000 children each year.
It provided money for transportation to AWO’s after school programs and took the children on study trips to historic Civil Rights sites. It supplied internships, job shadowing and guest speakers to inspire and open the children’s eyes to other worlds.
It also assured many children of jobs in the summer.
Still, Tompkins was never able to reach Jason, who at 12 years old became the provider for his family. He died a few years later – shot to death inside his apartment for $20.
In 2008, when the country’s economy plunged so did AWO’s funding and most of its programs.
“I just refuse to quit,” Tompkins said. “People use all kinds of excuses. But nothing is more important than making sure these kids get on the right path. Because chances are, if you don’t pay now, you’re gonna pay later.”
Now the program helps about 40 children each year. Two of the schools backed out when AWO lost most of its funding.
Still, Mary Blake, who recently retired from D. M. Therrell High School, said they have never had a program help the children as much as AWO. The school wasn’t about to back out.
“I think it’s an excellent community-based program and it has a lot to offer to the students. We have had quite a few kids go on to college, technical schools and community colleges,” Blake said.
The program has helped prevented hundreds from dropping out, she said.
The Battle for the Young
They range in age from 6 to 18 years old. Some are being raised in single homes, many on the verge of dropping out, and others face being kicked out for repeatedly getting into trouble at school.
Charlie Landers, Tompkins' assistant, was a counselor in the school system. She still gets baffled by the stories: a 2-year-old child turned into a prostitute; a 5-year-old put out of school for carrying a gun, a 3-year-old taking a bag of marijuana into the nursery. She still asks, why?
“A lot of kids are just crying out for you,” Landers said. “When you hug a kid, you can feel his spirit and know that’s the only hug he’s had.”
And the spiraling economy took its toll.
Now teachers are doing more disciplining than they are teaching, Landers said. The dropout rate keeps fluctuating and the age of children having babies keeps falling.
“The average 28-year-old is now a grandmother because kids are having children at 12 and 13 years old,” Landers said. “The result is parents who are not able to train their children up in the way they should go because they don’t know.”
Landers, whose home is often overrun with the neighborhood’s children, had a stroke after two years on the job.
She was in her car outside her home when one of the kids saw her. He reached in and turned off the car and ran to a nearby fire station to get help.
Landers, who will turn 74-years-old this month, has been back at work for six months.
“I was involved in so much stuff,” Landers said. “I can’t save the world.”
Still, Tompkins looks to her for encouragement whenever he gets discouraged. And Landers pushes him out the door to keep him from getting overworked.
But there are others who have adopted Tompkins’ passion for helping the young.
A Field of Hope
Billy Rollins and Tompkins grew up as friends in Dunsville, Va. Both have retired from the army, and a few years after Tompkins started , his boyhood friend moved to Georgia to work with him.
Rollins later opened up a Car Club and had the members work as mentors with AWO.
“I wanted to help the young kids, to show them there are other things they can do besides running the street, selling drugs and shooting people,” Rollins said.
They taught the children about the cars, how to put in a motor – then left the children with the cars at the shows to answer onlookers’ questions.
Rollins’ mentee was constantly in trouble. He was selling drugs, cutting classes and getting into fights at school.
In desperation, his mother reached out to Rollins. He didn’t have a son and gladly took the boy fishing, to the car shows, and everywhere he would have taken his son.
He quickly learned the boy had a problem with authority, and a lot of pent-up anger. He also learned the boy walked into his older brother’s New York apartment and found his naked body.
Rollins helped the boy get a job and encouraged him to stay in school. He was now studying to be a diesel mechanic, Rollins said.
The program has since lost many of its mentors, but AWO still provides after school programs, community service opportunities and summer jobs.
As an additional source of revenue, Tompkins took over the neighboring eight-acres driving range that he used to host the program’s annual Southwest Music Festival and the Summer Youth Golf Program.
At the range, the children get to meet and work with Hall of Famer Elijah Walker.
Moving steady on thin legs with one good eye, Walker mostly helped the children with their swing. The driving range, which doesn’t have a putting green or sand trap, was limited.
Walker, 75, grew up in Hunstville, Ala., and can identify with some of the kids he helped. At 8 years old, he was steadily on his way to becoming a school dropout, often cutting classes to go to the pool room with his friend.
Then, one day his friend didn’t show and Walker found out the boy went to the Huntsville Country Club to work as a caddy.
So, Walker became a caddy.
“It kept me from cutting classes and made me a Hall of Famer,” said Walker, who worked after school.
Walker watched, learned and grew to love the game. A freshman at Alabama A&M, he formed a golf team that won their tournament on the first attempt.
After two years, he dropped out of school to earn money for his tuition. He was a caddy for only three weeks when he was drafted into the army.
Then a general, who knew him as a caddy, enlisted his aid to build the Redstone Marshall Golf Course. He was still working there after he left the army. Then activists in Atlanta sued the city for not having a black golf professional.
The City of Atlanta hired Walker in 1971, but after five years closed the course. Still, Walker asked and received five holes and the club house to start a program to help inner city children, including Atlanta’s current Mayor Kasim Reed.
Through the Elijah Walker Inner City Junior Golf Academy, 116 children went to school on golf scholarships. Now, at AWO, he works with about 60 or 70 children through the eight-week junior golf camp. Then in December, he takes five or six of his best to the largest Junior Golf Tournament in the country where about 30 countries participate.
“It does more for them than the golf club and the golf ball,” said Walker whose son and daughter went to school on golf scholarships. “They mingle with kids and fellowship with them. It’s just a different world there.”
In 2004, one of Walker’s children won the championship for her age group. She was 10 years old, Walker said.
“Many of them are from low-income areas. They live with their grandmothers. They are trapped in drug infested areas where they couldn’t get out,” Walker said. “It’s a big change for them to be in a place like that.
“The most important thing to me is that all of them came out to be good people,” Walker said. “That means more to me than a Tiger Woods.”
Walker said he admires Tompkins for what he's doing for the children.
"He works all the time, sun up to sun down. I've never seen a man work so much."
Tompkins had his reasons.
“There is still a whole lot that needs to be done and I’m stubborn,” Tompkins said. “I feel like God is telling me to keep going.”