Year in Review: The senator and the (former) gangster

6:50 PM, Dec 22, 2010   |    comments
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"I thought 'This is the place,'" Johnston said of the one-story building.

Never mind the fact that he had to remove dead rats from an untold number of corners.

Before Johnston (D-Denver) moved into the building, he approached a potential officemate.

"At first I was like 'Let me see it,'" Terrance Roberts said. "State senator or not, I need to see the space!"

It didn't take Roberts long to give the building his stamp of approval, especially since he grew up just a short distance away. It was during those adolescent years that Roberts did some things that he's not proud of.

"I'm a kid who was an honor roll student," he said, "and I became a gang member. I was a serious gang member and it consumed my life."

Roberts had committed violent acts and was targeted in return. He still bears the bullet wounds from his dark past. He was in prison by the time he was 18.

"It started eating me up inside. I just really wanted to come to my community and help repair the damage that I caused," he said.

Repairing that damage meant forming his nonprofit organization: The Prodigal Son Initiative. The program is a voice against gang violence and an avenue for gang members to turn their lives around.

Roberts knew he needed a proper office space if he really wanted to take his mission to the next level, but even he is a little surprised at how it's come about.

"I've been to a lot of places from here to Port Au Prince, Haiti, and I haven't seen an example like this anywhere," he said. "An ex-gang member sharing an office with a state senator, this is an example that it can be done."

Johnston and Roberts split the rent: Johnston pays $400 a month from campaign contributions and Roberts pays $300 a month, with half of the cost covered by government reimbursements. The office space has become known as the Park Hill Community Center.

Residents in Park Hill are also starting to take notice that things are changing.

"I'm not going to say for sure. But I think this is the only person that ever had an office on this side," long-time Park Hill resident Mittis Chapman said of Johnston's District 33 Community office.

"Neighbors walked across the street yesterday, got his driver's license revoked and wanted to know if we could help," Johnston said.

"It's good," Sterling Keys, president of the Park Hill Social Club, said. "That's where he needs to be."

Opening an office in known gang territory has its risks. On the day Roberts and Johnston had their grand opening, a male gang member was beaten up by rival gang members just across the street as Johnston was giving a speech. Within a week of moving in the office, there was a drive-by shooting. Three bullet holes can be seen on the exterior of the building. Had they not been stopped by the wall, they would have gone straight into Johnston's office.

Still, both men say they feel safe in their neighborhood.

"All we want to do is make sure we get services to people," Roberts said. "And we can tag-team it like that."

Johnston, who began his career as a teacher in the Mississippi Delta, also served as principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts before being appointed to fill the senate seat vacated by former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff in 2009. He is running, unopposed, for re-election in November.

Roberts knows Johnston's career may eventually take him elsewhere. Even so, Roberts plans to continue the work that the pair started, including a community garden filled with fresh fruits and vegetables for anyone in the neighborhood to pick.

"You've probably seen the new library here and the new recreation center," Johnston said. "There was some great development happening before we got here. So we know we're standing of the shoulders of some giants in this neighborhood."

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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