One Bed-Stuy man is responsible for putting over 500 Brooklyn teens out on the streets, but not in the way you might be thinking.
Barnabas Shakur, 31, has been a resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood for over 20 years, and has witnessed firsthand its slow but steady progression from a gang-heavy ghetto to an increasingly safe, family-friendly community. In fact, he was an integral part of that process.
Thanks to the volunteer-based nonprofit organization Shakur founded in 2001, Project Re-Generation, Brooklyn teens are trading in guns and drugs for brooms and mops. Through Project Re-Generation's innovative Foot Soldiers program, hundreds of teens have hit the streets every day after school to sweep neighboring homeowners' stoops and sidewalks, clean their yards, and take out their trash.
The teens' active involvement in their community's restoration and beautification has not only helped create a cleaner and safer Brooklyn, but has helped bridge the gap between the old and new generations of Brooklynites and the two disparate kinds of Bed-Stuy residents -- black low-income families and middle-class young couples and professionals -- that have come to, somewhat awkwardly, co-exist in Bed-Stuy over the past ten years.
"I wouldn't say we're responsible for the positive way Bed Stuy's changed over time," Shakur tells The Huffington Post in an interview. "But we've definitely created something that inspires the next generation to be better, and teaches our kids by example. It's more than just a cleaning service."
Shakur adds that initiatives like the Foot Soldiers program are almost necessary in previously gang-heavy neighborhoods such as Bed-Stuy, where reckless behavior among teenagers -- including smoking, drinking, taking drugs and premature sexual activities -- still earns them street respect. Foot Soldiers, which was established in 2005 and is just one of many volunteer-run programs the nonprofit offers, refocuses the teens' after-school energies and activities from destructive to productive.
Though the teens are paid "wages" for their services (between $4.50 and $8.33 three times a week), the thousands of other Brooklyn residents who have donated their time, energy and efforts to the organization and its various programs and events are unpaid.
Over 5,000 collective volunteers across the borough have enabled PR-G to operate since its inception. From professionals who offer pro-bono legal services, to those who donate their teaching skills (PR-G also offers free, after-school tutoring), to volunteers who make up the crew leaders and supervisors of Foot Soldiers, Shakur says the organization's success relies on the goodness and generosity of the wider community.
"These guys have been doing great things for the community, and in return, the community does great things for them back," says long-time Bed-Stuy resident Anita Parker, who lives on Lafayette Avenue and Tompkins Street, just a few blocks down from PR-G's headquarters. "Everybody wins."
Despite running the organization on a shoestring budget comprised largely of donations -- "our biggest challenge is funding," Shakur admits -- PR-G's efforts and the impact it has on the community continue to increase exponentially.
Just this Monday, PR-G launched an intensive campaign to generate new customers for Foot Soldiers. PR-G volunteers hit the streets on a block-by-block drive on a newly-launched Youth Employment Program.
The program will reward Brooklyn homeowners by offering discounts to those blocks that collectively sign up for services. On blocks where at least 10 homeowners sign up, PR-G will provide services for 50 percent off, and on blocks where fewer sign up, homeowners will receive 10 percent off.
PR-G is optimistic the new program will further unite the community and generate more jobs for unemployed Brooklyn teens. On any block where at least four homeowners sign up for the cleaning service, one job is created for a teen.
As an incentive, crew leaders will bring a Foot Soldiers team to do a free demonstration of the cleaning service at 30 randomly chosen homes on the block.
It's an excellent marketing plan that's already attracting many residents -- including Brooklyn's own Borough President.
"Initiatives like this are a win-win, not just for the kids, but for all Brooklynites who need services such as sidewalk cleaning and snow and trash removal," Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz told The Huffington Post.
"At a time when job creation is a top priority, particularly jobs for younger Brooklynites struggling to find work in under-employed neighborhoods, we need more programs that keep our youth off the streets and actively working."
The positive impact of PR-G’s programs -- which include academic mentoring, life schooling and extracurricular weekend classes such as urban jujitsu and zumba -- stretches far beyond the borders of Bed-Stuy and neighboring Clinton Hill. Shakur says that over 96 percent of the teens who commit 20-25 hours a week to PR-G's programs throughout high school have gone on to graduate. Some have even gone on to excel in college.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of all, however, is that PR-G has increased teenagers' confidence and self-esteem by teaching them to "dream big" and equipping them with an unwavering support system that many of them wouldn't have otherwise.
"I have made so many friends here," says Tyisha Kincaid, 14, a Foot Soldier and an aspiring chef. "We're like one big family. We do everything together, it's really cool."
When HuffPost asked Shakur, who spent his own adolescence navigating the streets of Bed Stuy, what personal advice he had for teens looking to improve their lives and make a difference in the world, he barely had to stop and think about his answer.
"Do you. Be progressive. And read," he said. "It's the key to life."
Feeling inspired? Bed Stuy's Project Re-Generation accepts donations through its website.