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Antwan Flowers, youth director at the Payne Ave Salvation Army in St Paul

Mister Flowers’ neighborhood

Added on Friday, October 4, 2013

It’s not always a beautiful day in Mr. Flowers’ neighborhood. As youth director of the Payne Ave. Salvation Army in St. Paul, Antwan Flowers serves kids living on the city’s notorious Eastside – a premier destination for drugs, prostitution and violence.

Eastside kids often see stuff that would mess up even a tough adult. In summer 2011, for example, a 10-year-old boy came to Antwan in disarray. The boy had just witnessed the unthinkable – a murder attempt on his mother. Her boyfriend had doused the woman in lighter fluid and set their apartment on fire. The brave little boy got help from a neighbor and saved his mother’s life. Remarkably, the boy kept his scheduled visit to see Antwan at The Salvation Army.

As shocking as that story sounds, that’s how life goes on St. Paul’s Eastside. Things get rough, crazy, almost unbelievable, and then life goes on.

Luckily, in a neighborhood where smiles can be scarce and hope is sometimes lost, kids have a strong friend with book smarts and street cred who is fighting hard for their future. They call him Mr. Flowers.

In his first-ever extended interview, Antwan dished about his motivation, the program’s power and his hope for the future.

Divine Inspiration

Antwan Flowers leading worship at the St. Paul Payne. Ave. Salvation ArmyThat little boy who saved his mother? He’s exactly the kind of kid Antwan wants to mentor and keep on the right side of the law.

“That same morning, after all the boy had been through, he got on the bus to come here,” Antwan said. “If we can help a kid say, ‘No, I don’t want to make those choices,’ then we’ve done our job.”

Antwan’s best tool for making that happen comes from above. He teaches the children about God every day. For every terrible thing a kid is dealing with, the Bible has the answer.

“This isn’t even a job for me – it’s a ministry,” he said. “I feel like I’m walking in my calling, doing the ministerial work I’ve been blessed to do.”

Another tool: teaching the value of hard work.

“One reason I’ve been successful is that I’ve worked all my life. I started young, delivering papers out of a Radio Flyer wagon,” said Antwan, crediting his parents for being first-rate role models to him and his seven siblings. “We’re trying to teach these kids the value of a strong work ethic. If you want extra things in life, you have to work for it.”

Besides a heart for God, Antwan’s got something else needed to make a difference in this tough-as-nails part of town: street cred. Everyone on St. Paul’s Eastside knows him because he’s lived there his whole life.

“Adverse youth throughout the community respect Antwan,” said Andrea Arts, youth program assistant. “It takes a long time to gain trust around here. But everywhere you go in this neighborhood, all you hear is, ‘Hey, Mr. Flowers!’”

Antwan has spent the last 20 years as a behavioral specialist at Bruce Vento Elementary in St. Paul, helping youth with extreme mental health disabilities. He started the Payne Ave. Salvation Army’s youth program from scratch 11 years ago, wanting to expand his role in the community. Despite the program’s immense success, he has never accepted a raise, saying he’d rather see the money spent on the kids.

Paying dividends

Having grown up on the same St. Paul streets as the kids he serves, Antwan knows many of the children come from perfectly fine families that just need some extra help.

Enter Marianna Georgen. About 10 years ago, she and her son Damien, then 5, moved to St. Paul from Rochester, Minn. Marianna was a single parent with little money and no family support. Damien began attending Bruce Vento Elementary and met Antwan, who then connected Marianna with the Payne Ave. Salvation Army’s youth program.

Score.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it without (the youth program),” Marianna said. “It allowed me to take a second job.”

Damien spent the next decade in the program, which allowed Marianna to work extra hours. She needed the money to provide Damien with better opportunities.

Today, those opportunities have arrived. Damien, now 14, has been accepted to Cretin Derham Hall, a prestigious private high school in St. Paul. He received a partial scholarship for the $11,000 tuition fee, with Marianna paying the rest.

“(Antwan) wrote a letter of recommendation that helped get Damien in,” Marianna said. “I can’t even describe how much he’s helped me. He’s been a mentor to Damien for these whole 10 years. He is so awesome.”

Donations in action

Antwan Flowers leads youth in an after-school activityThe youth program is a perfect example of how donations to The Salvation Army are used to do the most good. They allow the program to be offered free during the school year. During summer, it’s free to parents who can’t afford it and costs only $25 to those who can. Donations also pay for children to be bussed from their school to The Salvation Army, and later to their own doorstep.

“I get to see where those donations go,” Antwan said. “I live it.”

The program serves 60 to 70 kids in grades K–6 almost every weekday of the year, providing sports, Bible lessons, music, crafts, nutritious food and a loving environment. Academics are the main focus during the school year, with local police officers stopping by every week to tutor the kids.

Music and the arts are important, too: “With schools as tight on money as they are, cutting music and drama out of their programs, we decided very consciously to try and take some of that up,” said Captain John Joyner, Payne Ave. Salvation Army administrator.

Antwan started the youth program in 2002 at the request of Major James Castor, former leader of the Payne Ave. Salvation Army. At that time, the facility offered only drop-in youth services, such as open gym.

“When (Major Castor) offered me a job I turned it down – but I said I’d at least volunteer,” said Antwan, whose reputation in the community precedes him so much that he’s never once had a formal job interview or had to create a résumé. “Then he found out who my parents are and told them how much he wanted to hire their son. After five or six months he finally wore me down. Eleven years later, it’s clear I made the right decision.”

Captain John agrees.

“Antwan is a strong pillar in the Eastside neighborhood,” he said. “He has dedicated his life to helping those around him.”

Hope on the Horizon

St. Paul Payne Ave. Salvation ArmyAntwan’s dream is to expand the building. With more classrooms and a bigger gym, the program could accept more kids.

“Right now there’s a waiting list – we don’t have enough space to accommodate the need,” he said. “More space would mean more kids’ lives changed.”

A possible expansion is being explored right now. Though it’s early, this much is known: Expanding would require a great deal of money. If you, your company or somebody you know would like to learn more about making a significant contribution to this potential project, please call Debra Wilken at 651-746-3490.

Whether or not an expansion occurs, Antwan isn’t going anywhere. He’ll still be found at the Payne Ave. Salvation Army doing what he was born to do: help children.

“I’m thankful to God, who is the head of my life, to have the opportunity to help kids through The Salvation Army,” Antwan said. “This organization represents my beliefs, my professionalism.”

See Antwan and the youth program in this amazing video.