Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente sentenced Dontae Morris, who was convicted in the murders of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, to death last week.
Nearly two years before, I interviewed Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, to talk about her son, the man media outlets called a monster.
Seated in an east Tampa living room with Morris' family — his hospitable grandmother, an aunt and a cousin — I listened as Watson told stories of her son's little league days. As a child, Morris was a loving and creative honor roll student, Watson said.
I wondered how and when things went wrong.
When Morris got into trouble as an adolescent, bouncing in and out of juvenile detention, Watson asked the courts to find a program to keep him off the streets, she said. He needed structure and positive role models. He needed a new crowd.
But outside of jail, she couldn't find help for her son, Watson said. Judges and caseworkers didn't know where to send him. Morris' crimes became more serious. In 2010, he was charged in the deaths of five men, including Rodney Jones, Derek Anderson and Harold Wright, along with the two Tampa officers.
Thinking back on that interview with Watson, I wonder if the right intervention program might have made a difference in a young Dontae Morris' life?
No one can know the answer.
But what of the young men growing up now? Can life lessons taught by gangs and street violence be unlearned?
Keith Babb says they can. Babb is the founder of 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E Center 4 Boyz, a Christian ministry designed to give juvenile offenders in Hillsborough County, ages 9 to 13, a fresh start.
Through 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E, boys whose offenses range from battery to drug possession and theft, complete a five-week intervention program offering character building, academic enrichment, after-school activities and community service opportunities.
Hillsborough County Juvenile Diversion Court connects candidates with 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E, and if a youth completes the five weeks, his arrest records are erased.
Babb, a social worker with a master's degree from the University of South Florida, founded 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E in 2010. The nonprofit, which is run by volunteers, operates out of recreation centers, churches and parks. Boys in the program are visited by speakers, pray together and go on field trips.
Recently, 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E received a $25,000 grant from State Farm, but that isn't enough to fulfill Babb's goal of opening a permanent facility.
"Without a set site, it's difficult to make a long-term impact in the community," Babb said. "We want to open a facility that would act not only as a youth center but as an alternative to traditional juvenile detention. When these boys are placed in detention until their court date, which can be up to 30 days, statistics show they are more likely to re-offend and less likely to graduate high school. We want to offer them the support services they need and counseling in a Christian atmosphere."
Babb said he has signatures from more than 1,000 Hillsborough County residents, parents, teachers and caseworkers expressing support for 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E.
He also has letters.
"Mr. Babb has developed one of the few programs successfully serving JDC youth who would otherwise have lacked the assistance they needed to complete their diversion sanctions," wrote Regina Downum, case manager with the Hillsborough County Juvenile Diversion Program. "We at JDP have appreciated and respected Mr. Babb's work and will continue to refer youth to his program. We urge the support of other community interests to help him expand."
As for fundraising, Babb said he receives small donations from people in the community. Businesses and larger organizations often turn him down.
He prays every day that a property will be made available.
"I think it is a sad commentary on our society when $2 billion can easily be raised to purchase a sports team for entertainment but it is utterly difficult to raise less than even 1 percent of that to build a center to provide at-risk boys with a second chance and improve the safety of our community," Babb said.
Babb, who attends New Dawn Restoration Center in Temple Terrace, knows the struggle firsthand. He grew up in a single-parent household. As a juvenile, he was arrested for vandalism and theft. Through hard work and faith, he turned his life around, graduating from college and dedicating his life to Christ in 2006.
"I really believe God has called me to do this," Babb said. "I want to share with these boys that they have been created for a purpose, that it doesn't matter what their age is, their actions make them who they are."
In addition to its intervention program, 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E hosts community and family events, including a yearly back-to-school fair offering free school supplies. In May, boys in the program and their mothers enjoyed a complimentary breakfast at Babb's church.
On Saturday, volunteers will host a football camp at Robles Park. Boys ages 9 to 13 are invited. The event begins at 9 a.m. Legal guardians also may attend.
If he is able to open a youth center, Babb said he plans to host family game nights and family dinners. He wants parents and siblings to feel welcome there. He imagines classrooms inside, dormitories and an outdoor basketball court.
"Young men are getting arrested," Babb said. "Young men are getting killed. What are we going to do about it? I really believe if we intervene we can prevent the things that happen with these boys later in life."
For more information on 2nd C.H.A.N.C.E 4 Boyz, visit 2ndchance4boyz.org.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]