By Jason Fields
Charlie Shayne’s voice is gruff, as if 10 million cigarettes have come and gone.
His sense of humor is sardonic. Anyone walking past him in the courtyard of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center is a likely target. Somehow, though, whether he’s making fun of someone’s car, clothes, or even their past, no one seems offended.
And it’s more than a case of just Old Charlie being Charlie, having earned the right to say what he pleases after 25 years of running the center, growing its services, shepherding through, by his own estimate, a quarter of a million young people who lived in poverty, in troubled homes, all in need of some kind of help. That may be part of it, but there also seems to be a relationship, a memory behind each word. There’s affection, too, something tells the victim that there’s no ill intent behind the blow.
Now, some of those he helped are carrying on his work as he retires today.
As Mr. Shayne sits talking under a fold-out canopy, he hollers for Michelle McPherson to come over. She’s walking with car keys in her hand, clearly on her way somewhere else, but instead she heads over, the look on her face the kind saved for a favorite but eccentric uncle.
Mr. Shayne introduces her as the director of after school programs at KHCC, and also as an 11-year-old he remembers from 1991.
He teases her about her car, which is apparently too small and weird-looking, and her tenure at KHCC, facetiously deciding that the center would have to keep her, seemingly in spite of her bad taste in automobiles.
While Mr. Shayne takes a walk, Ms. McPherson said she remembers the date when she first met Mr. Shayne, in 1991: Sept. 18.
“It’s important to remember the date,” she said.
“It had a huge impact on me. I never left since that day,” Ms. McPherson said.
She speaks about the programs to help kids on the brink of trouble at KHCC, and she talks about Mr. Shayne and his ability to defuse a crisis among those who come to the center for help.
One story involved gang members in an “altercation” at the center when Mr. Shayne stepped in and stopped the situation from escalating.
What Mr. Shayne was interested in wasn’t punishment, Ms. McPherson said, but “How do we fix the program to help them?”
He hired three of the boys involved to help out at the center.
When Mr. Shayne wanders back, they kid each other some more about cars and Ms. McPherson leaves to pick someone up.
Mr. Shayne expounds on his beliefs that early intervention and a community agreement on what to tolerate is the way to save kids and bring them into the mainstream.
It doesn’t work if young people are “taught in the center not to be violent, but go home to something else. There has to be a shared vision of how people need to behave,” he said.
Mr. Shayne’s belief comes from his own upbringing, he said, more than 50 years ago in a public housing project in Queens where he lived as a child.
His mother worked long hours after his father died when Mr. Shayne was only 5 years old. He was charged with looking after his younger sister and learned to cook.
“We played with everyone, no matter their race or background,” he said, and a sense of community pervaded the buildings.
“‘If their parents aren’t home, bring them home and we’ll feed them,’” Mr. Shayne said, quoting his mother.
If he did anything wrong, he said, “Forty or 50 parents would whack me on the head.”
Everyone took responsibility for the children growing up in his neighborhood, he said.
What he has tried to do in his 25 years at KHCC, he said, is bring that ethos to this neighborhood.
“There are 50 to 60 ethnic groups here, none in favor of poverty, none in favor of hunger, none in favor of violence,” he said.
That’s enough for people to have in common if they want to turn a neighborhood around, Mr. Shayne said.
And he said he believes the world can get better, that people can be saved, even after a career of more than 35 years, where he’s encountered a lot of failure.
“Social workers have to be optimists,” Mr. Shayne said. “Otherwise, I’d have to be a revolutionary.”