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With Walter Hunter long gone from the Boys & Girls Club, who’s got these kids’ back?



It started with a question.

“Why wasn’t I nominated, Walter?” asked 17-year-old Jesus Silva.

The Midvale Boys & Girls Club unit director had just announced the 2003 Youth of the Year nomination in October of that year. None of the 25 club members in the room had heard of the girl who won. More to the point, the club’s gang-prevention specialist, Walter Hunter, didn’t have an answer to Silva’s question.

Silva’s expectation of being considered for the award and its $500 cash prize, was not unreasonable. He’d gotten out of a hardcore gang life, mentored at-risk kids, donated his artwork to the club for fund-raisers, won numerous art and photography awards, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Valley’s 2003 Artist of the Year award (BGCSV is the umbrella organization for the seven clubs in the valley) and been profiled in The Salt Lake Tribune and La Prensa. In short, just the kind of high-risk teen the Boys & Girls Club of America was established to help. Indeed, Silva’s success was the kind of story it could be proud of.

A week later, at a meeting of the administration of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Valley called to discuss tinkering with the wording of the club’s mission statement, Hunter asked executive director Bob Dunn why Silva hadn’t been nominated for the award.

“It’s political, Walt,” Hunter recalls Dunn saying. For the record, Dunn denies making such a statement.

Political, Hunter eventually found out, meant that Silva was undocumented.

Furious, he stared at the mission statement projected on the wall for the staff to discuss. It read: “To inspire and empower youth, families and communities to realize their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.”

“Let’s put empower some youth,” Hunter said.

That suggestion marked the beginning of the end of Hunter’s career at Midvale as its maverick, yet effective and much praised gang-prevention specialist. Not that the awards and praise, even from the Boys & Girls Club of South Valley, didn’t keep coming in before his termination: “He is not only a teacher of the arts, but he is a role model,” the organization’s August 2004 newsletter said. “He empowers youth to express their experiences and feelings through artistic means. Walt, thank you for your dedication to ‘our’ youth.”

Six months after that published accolade, Hunter was unemployed.

On Feb 1, 2005, having been nominated by Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini for an award for his work on the club’s art program, Hunter wrote asking her that his name, and those of his “homies” he had turned on to art and away from the gang life, be withdrawn from the nomination.

“It would be hypocritical of me,” he wrote, “to allow myself or our at-risk artists to align themselves with an at-risk organization that favors some youth, some families, some community members over others.”

Four days after he sent the letter, Hunter was fired.

That the Boys & Girls Clubs of America play a vital role in their communities is undeniable. They provide childcare, sports and arts facilities, education, counseling and homework assistance, not to mention an after-school refuge. Without them, communities like West Jordan, Murray and Midvale would have far less to offer its youth.

Take a walk around the Midvale club with area director Wendy Thompson a year after Hunter’s departure, and you’ll see teens painting their hands to decorate ceiling panels with palm prints. Three teens write poems with a volunteer. Others lounge around on sofas, talking or playing pool. A 12-foot-long wall once covered by artwork done by teens during Hunter’s tenure, is bare. Thompson can’t remember what happened to the paintings.

In the south wing of the club, dedicated partly to elementary kids, a painting hangs in the corner above the sink. It shows four faces on the left, an animal, perhaps a bird on the right. It’s primitive but powerful, full of dark, brooding colors. Thompson says it’s Silva’s work. When asked if she likes it, she doesn’t reply.

Silva says it was one of a series done with another youth. The four faces represented people who were holding him back, the bird the artist himself, struggling to be free.

Beneath the complaints Hunter and the young adults he once mentored have is an allegation that BGCSV management holds a double standard that in many ways mirrors this country’s attitude to undocumented immigrants in general.

“These kids were good enough to be used to get grant money,” says Hunter, “but bottom line, they didn’t want them as members of their club.”

The unique, mercurial personality that is Walter Hunter, at-risk teen advocate and teacher, has its roots in a Providence, R.I., upbringing.

His father'“All cat and gut,” recalls Hunter'was an inventor who wanted his wife to be “his own personal fashion model” when he came home. Right up to his death, when Hunter carried him in his arms out of the hospital so he could have a last beer, the son sought a connection to his father he could never quite manage. Hunter’s mother proved equally challenging. She told him, “Don’t mess up the makeup” when he approached her with a kiss. Taking him with her to Manhattan, she asked her 6-year-old son if he noticed the way men admired her.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Hunter’s second ex-wife, Linda Smith-Hunter, describes him as “hypersensitive.” If such a quality, combined with his understanding of what it means to come from a dysfunctional background, allows him to relate intensely with at-risk teens, with adults he can be awkward and downright intimidating. Especially given his imposing height and fierce eyes.

His natural singing talents led the 18-year-old to serenade hoodlums nightly in a steak house owned by Lucky Luciano’s brother. “I sang to wiseguys most of my life. There’s a price for that. You get a call at two in the afternoon to sing at a party, you go and sing.”

After moving to New York, he married and had children. He also began a 20-year-spree of womanizing. “I was famous among shop eepers. They’d keep score. The street was my most successful venue when it came to women. But my pursuit of women has always been my downfall.”

Once a protégé of Moss Hart’s, Hunter made it onto Broadway, the highpoint being playing Captain Medina in a 1975 off-Broadway rock opera The Lieutenant, about the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre. Then Sin City called, where he worked as a production singer in the biggest Las Vegas hotels, in top hat and tails surrounded by 80 topless girls, headlining shows twice a night, six nights a week. “When he walked out on stage, you could almost hear people suck in their breath,” says Smith-Hunter. But the glitter came to an end. After seven years fronting a ritzy hotel show full of girls and pyrotechnics, breathing in firework dust ruined his vocal cords.

“When he lost his voice, he lost his identity,” says Smith-Hunter. “He always felt he had to entertain.” He spent two years in bed with a depression that’s plagued him ever since. About all he could do was cut the lawn once a week.

In 1996, the Hunters moved to Utah and his wife found him a job for $6.50 an hour working with Scott Harker, a then-41-year-old developmentally disabled man so big that, at over 200 pounds, no one would work with him. He’d been institutionalized since the age of 3, had no social skills and lived in a group home. Hunter spent five years with Harker, who had a passion for collecting and bagging garbage. They became a fixture of Midvale’s parks and streets, working for the Midvale City parks division. In a letter of recommendation, Mayor Seghini wrote, “After working with Walt, Scott was able to go to department dinners, relate in nonviolent ways to large groups of people, and extend simple greetings when spoken to. The change was remarkable.”

Hunter developed art programs for him and other developmentally disabled adults. “Everything happened through Scotty in a way,” he says about being taken on by Midvale Boys & Girls Club as art director and gang prevention specialist in 2001.

Bob Dunn, executive director of Murray’s Club, established the Midvale branch in 2000. “We knew what the neighborhood was like,” Hunter says.

Without doubt it was and is very different from Murray. One key difference is the legal status of some members. Hunter estimates 50 percent of the 150-odd teens he mentored at the club were undocumented. Sonia Orozco, herself a former Original Gangster and onetime colleague of Hunter’s at Midvale, says the majority were “wannabe” or “gonnabe” gang members.

Orozco knows more about Salt Lake City’s gangs than anyone else who isn’t either a cop or a longtime gang member.

“She said ‘If I made it, you all can too,’” Silva says. “She had a lot to do with it. We could relate to her. She always had our back.”

The child of Puerto Rican migrant farm workers, she grew up moving from farm to farm with her nine siblings, working for $3 an hour. At the age of 14 she was initiated into “Los Chiques,” rising through the ranks to become gang leader. She spent 13 months in jail for possession. Her wake-up call was not so much the jail time but the fact that neither of the two gang members she was holding “something” for came to see her. “They said they had my back, but where were they?”

Orozco’s two children went into gangs. After being shot at six times, her son found his way out. Her daughter, wanting to be “a hard-ass” like her mother, shot the finger off of a man who flipped her the bird on Interstate-15. She is serving 15 years. At least now, Orozco says, she knows where her daughter is at night.

Together Hunter and Orozco were, for a while, the dream team for the at-risk kids at Midvale. They share a similar intensity, although Orozco is much more controlled than Hunter, who’s like a dozen fireworks exploding in as many different directions. Interviewing Hunter, who’s easily distracted by attractive women walking by, can be exhausting. While he battles with depression, at the same time he displays incredible energy and joy for life that found its true outlet in working with teenagers. “They’re so in the fucking moment, man,” he says, before apologizing for the profanity.

But even in those first months, Hunter found himself struggling with management decisions. He recalls one instance where the difference in management attitudes to Midvale and Murray club members was already becoming evident. Record temperatures marked his first summer of work there. Because elementary kids were using the teens’ space, his group was relegated from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to using the neighboring park. But when he went to work at Murray for a week, he was told that given the stifling heat, the kids could only stay out for 15 minutes at a time, and that he had to make sure they drank a lot of water afterwards.

Orozco left Midvale in 2003 for what she felt was a better job as student, parent and court liaison for Jordan School District. But her anger at the club is evident. She compares BGCSV management’s attitude to the teens Hunter mentored to a cop she overheard after her 25-year-old nephew had just been gunned down'saying, “he was just another gang member.” For Orozco, both cases illustrate an inability to see beyond the stereotype, the clothing and the tattoos. “There’s something behind those baggy pants, but people are afraid of them. The club forgot what it was about because they weren’t willing to put that fear aside.”

For Hunter, it’s about a contract between society and all teenagers who grow up here'regardless of past history or citizenship'that they will be listened to, acknowledged, worked with. Otherwise, the consequences can be grim'not only for the youths, but for society.

“We’re unwilling to meet them halfway, give them the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “But you can’t let these kids down. It’s too devastating.”

Hunter admits the first four months at Midvale, he was intimidated by teens who’d do their best to stare him down. Staff told him when he started that if trouble came, he should lock himself in the heating room and call the police. But Hunter was undaunted.

Using his background in theater, singing and poetry, he set up art programs to get the teens to express themselves. “Nobody spent any time with these kids. Once I got to know them, to see through their eyes was amazing.”

However, the reason there was an art and photograph program at all, he says, was because of Silva. “Once Jesus said it was cool, everyone else was on board.”

Some former gang members have a haunted agelessness about them. Silva, on the other hand, carries an eerie glow of strength, of steely focus.

At the age of 6, he crossed the desert into this country with his mother and seven siblings. They stayed with cousins in San Jose, Calif. “They called me a wetback, tried to choke me in my sleep,” Silva remembers.

His oldest brother fell out with their mother over her boyfriend while they lived in a trailer. All the siblings except Jesus left the family. “I was looking at the door, kneeling there alone for three hours, waiting for her to come home.”

He witnessed shootings and stabbings. When he was 10, a gang member offered him $20 to see how many people were standing around a corner, and then report back. “I just stood there and jumped every time there was a shot,” he recalls.

When he and his mother moved to Utah, at age 13, he joined a gang. “I made a lot of enemies,” he admits. “I couldn’t take my nephews to the mall because I knew they’d get at me by going after them.”

He ended up going to the Boys & Girls Club to meet girls but met Hunter instead. According to Silva, their first encounters were not promising: “I didn’t like Walter at first. He was rude, joking around. The third day, he was frustrated. He smashed some charcoal against the wall and said, ‘There, that’s your mark.’ I felt sorry for him'no one would get up to mark paper.”

Silva joined him. Taking a piece of charcoal from Hunter, he slashed out a line. Hunter went back four or five steps, then ran at the paper and stabbed at it with the charcoal. Silva cut and slashed in return. “Dueling,” executing mayhem with whatever art materials Hunter usually sprung for out of his own pocket, was born.

Drawing had calming effects on Silva. But when he showed one of his finished works to his sister, she cried. “Is that how you see life?” she asked him. That, combined with an accident on a construction site when he was almost crushed to death'“I heard this popping, everything went white, my life flashed before my eyes, only I didn’t see nothing”'brought a change inside.

Silva’s most proud of mentoring kids to stay out of gangs, but after he was overlooked for the Youth of the Year award, he said the club “felt like shit. I lost all interest.”

BGCSV executive director Dunn defends the club’s nomination of the girl who won the award. “She was a member through participation in our Parents Anonymous program and a volunteer working with younger members,” he wrote in an e-mail response. “The Youth of the Year competition is a national Boys & Girls Club scholarship award, which contains specific rules like any competition. Citizenship or legal status is required to participate for college money. … The Youth of the Year may have limitations but it is a mere pebble in a mountain of opportunities we offer the thousands of youth we ‘serve.’”

That “pebble” meant an awful lot to Silva. If Silva, or any other teen with a past in gangs, wasn’t worthy of the award or nomination, there’s little doubt their artwork and exhibitions brought valuable print and broadcast publicity to BGCSV. That coverage was included, as part of Hunter’s art program, as the main plank of a successful application by BGCSV for a $10,000 grant. Silva and his resume were cited numerous times, along with other former gang-affiliated teens Hunter worked with, as examples of how the club worked to keep at-risk teens out of gangs.

They were good enough to raise money for the club, Silva and Hunter argue, but not to be nominated for a college scholarship.

Problems between Hunter and club management over the treatment of teens he mentored grew only worse over time. He was troubled by “Wanted” posters of gang-affiliated teens hanging from club walls, even if, as Dunn says, the responsible person was fired. A group of gang kids allegedly pulled a wedgie on another kid in a van and received a month’s suspension. But when a group of “nice” kids, as Hunter calls them, turned a car over in the car park, and provoked fights, they were sent home for the night. Dunn says he knows nothing of these incidents.

Hunter says that in summer 2004 Midvale/West Jordan-area director Wendy Thompson kicked four boys out of the club for “not going to school.” These teens had little choice but to work, he says, if they wanted to survive. Thompson says the boys in question were over 18 and therefore ineligible to be on club grounds unless they were volunteers. When the same kids returned to the club two days later, then went to a nearby park, Thompson phoned police to report trespassing.

“I’d do it again,” Thompson says. “The club is for kids 3 to 18. When you are protecting little kids, that is what matters.”

Hunter alleges it was another instance of double standards at play. “Nice” members 18 and over were allowed at the club for several months after gang-affiliated members were kicked out for being too old.

“You treat kids like criminals,” he says, “they behave like them.”

Hunter’s been unable to find work with teens again since his discharge from the Boys & Girls Club. However, when Hunter appealed his dismissal after the club denied him unemployment benefits, a judge ruled he had been discharged “without just cause,” and his benefits were reinstated.

Now he wants to unite the two strands of his life that he says were, “when I was at my most honest, that were my true essence.”

His future plans, if he can find the financing, involve opening a studio where at-risk kids, documented or not, Anglo or Hispanic, black or Asian, can intermingle with the mentally disabled, work together on art, and learn from each other.

At first the idea of grouping two such disparate groups together seems odd. Hunter says to some degree both the developmentally disabled and at-risk teens are treated as social pariahs. They’re kept at a distance from others, and that internalized distance can result in emotional problems. “When Scotty and many of my homies would say hello to me, not wanting to be touched, they’d come and butt me in the chest with their heads.”

In the meantime at this April’s Salt Lake Gallery Stroll, Hunter, who gets calls from members of his old Midvale crew day and night, has arranged a gallery wall for three of his Midvale club students to exhibit, including Silva.

Among the sheaves of poetry and artwork from his Midvale club members, Hunter proudly displays a verse by a 6-year-old girl, Abdi, translated from Spanish. It sums up the painful, one-sided relationship many of these children and teenagers, whom Hunter calls “kids without a country,” have with the United States:

The love that I have for you
I loved you with all my heart
At night I think of you
And each day I will love you
But there is one thing that I
Don’t like about you
That you have no heart
For me

A lot has happened since Hunter’s departure from the club. Of the 25-plus core Midvale members Hunter mentored, Orozco says, five have been in jail, two have been deported, four have been in detention centers and one has struggled with meth.

“You can’t blame the club for the choices they [the kids] made,” Orozco says. “But you can blame the club for not accepting them. How many times does society turn them down every day? They push and push and feel there’s no hope. Walt gave them hope.”

Just last week, Midvale’s Boys & Girls Club was advertising to fill its post of teen director.