Writing on the Wall
By: Marisa Connally
Police sirens echo off of the graffiti-ridden walls of South Side Chicago. Gun shots are a part of the white noise of the neighborhood. And on those same streets a 4-year-old Charles Lee sat with his “Pops” draped across his lap, unconscious with heroin needles protruding from his veins. They stayed there until the sun came up.
Charles, now grown with a family of his own, glanced toward the ground, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in a sad smile. His eyes clouded a bit as he recalled the memory from so many years ago. At the time, Lee said he didn’t even realize that it was a bad place. After all, that’s all he grew up knowing. “You just get wrapped up in the city,” he said.
He joined a gang at the age of 11. He cooked and sold drugs on the streets to support his family.
“The people that were coming to buy drugs were like my friends’ parents—their mothers, their fathers, their uncles, their aunties. You didn’t even realize you were strengthening the disease of like your best friend’s mother.”
His clients didn’t only pay in cash. Occasionally, they would offer sexual favors or a stolen video game he recognized as one of his friends’ from up the street in exchange for the highly addictive substances.
Lee witnessed the murder of his best friend at the age of 12.
They had planned to rob a store together, and Lee was on lookout duty. His friend went inside and pulled out a gun. “I didn’t even know he was going in with a gun,” Lee said.
The ricochet of two shots rang out from the store, and Lee sprinted inside to make sure that his friend hadn’t murdered someone. But a totally different scene met his eyes. His best friend was lifeless on the ground, blood dripping from two holes in his face. Lee said this was the first time he really respected death. He realized just how close the Grim Reaper was at all times as he had to explain to his friend’s family that their son had been killed.
But that’s not where his story ends.
Lee said seeing best friend die is a big part of why he does what he does now. “He never got a chance to make it. I want to make sure kids get their chance.”
Today, Lee’s now six-year-old ministry, That’s My Child, teaches kids the love
of God and life skills in Montgomery, Alabama. The gray basketball court out
back or the dance studio inside or the gutted yellow school bus that’s in the
process of becoming a traveling art studio are just a few of the many avenues
Lee takes to connect with the kids.
That’s My Child now has a facility to call their own on Lower Wetumpka Road.
Lee and his team worked hard to build their ministry into what it is today.
He said he’s had a vivid vision for his facility for many years, and his dream is
slowly becoming reality as their new building,
called the S.P.O.T.—Students Pouring Out Talent—is coming together.
Jonathan Peterson, That’s My Child program director and 2017 Alabama Spoken Word artist of the year, uses his talent to minister through rap battles, creative writing and poetry contests. “I fell in love with the vision and mission and just want to kind of do everything that I can to help make it succeed,” he said. Peterson said he hopes to eventually grow his outreach and travel the country performing and teaching workshops for kids across the nation.
Stephanie Massengale currently works as That’s My Child’s office manager and has been there since the idea’s conception. “I’ve known Charles for a very long time and heard him pitch the idea…” she said. Her son is one of the hundreds of children Lee’s organization has served over the years.
“Everything that I know that I went through as a child, it was definitely to prepare me. It was to give me the tools that I needed to know what I’d be up against for my future.”
At the age of 13, Lee was himself shot in the chest.
The moment that bullet pierced his flesh was a wakeup call to his mother, he said. She decided to relocate the family to Montgomery, Alabama.
Lee said that Montgomery was a big change from Chicago though. “When I first got here, you know, it was definitely so slow, but I realized I could definitely live here—you know, like I could make it here.”
But it didn’t feel like home at first, he clarified. Lee said he brought a bit of a “chip on his shoulder” with him. “Like, I’m different.” He said he barely lasted two weeks at the first school he attended in Montgomery due to fighting. He found himself expelled from the second school he attended too.
After Lee failed to settle in at either of those schools, he was sent to an alternative school, called Project Upward, at the age of 16. That’s where he met Mr. Gavin, who would later become a key component in turning Lee’s life around.
Lee described Mr. Gavin and his tall, bulky, military-trained physique. He said he’d seen “the baddest” try and fight him, but Mr. Gavin always put them in their place.
Mr. Gavin took Lee under his wing. He saw that Lee had something special about him. At first, Lee didn’t absorb the fullness of what Mr. Gavin said to him. “I was just like ‘That’s dope,’” he said with a shrug.
Students at Project Upward were required to fold their hands behind their back military-style and ask permission to enter any room. Finally, Lee had found the structure and discipline that had been missing from his childhood. “When people do take the time to correct your efforts, then it’s like you know you care.”
After completing middle school, though, Lee transferred to Robert E. Lee High School, where he stayed until his 11thgrade year. But, yet again, he was expelled and sent back to Project Upward. “I really wanted to go back there because I liked it there,” Lee said with a laugh.
But once Lee found out that his credits didn’t transfer, and he’d have to retake his 11thgrade classes, he opted to drop out of high school altogether during his 12thgrade year and work full time at Church’s Chicken and Papa John’s.
“That was one of the biggest regrets of my life,” he said. He still dreams sometimes of going back to high school and graduating.
Mr. Gavin now serves on the board of That’s My Child. “It’s ironic because the same guy, you know Mr. Gavin that I talk about, he’s like on our board now here.”
“It’s funny how you went to my school, and now I’m working for you,” Mr. Gavin said to Lee at their last meeting.
“It’s hard to ever be effective if you haven’t been affected by something.”
Lee’s father was just released from prison last month. He received a text from Pops recently that said “I love you.” Lee said he’s “still got his struggles, but he’s consistently around.” And for that, Lee says he is very thankful.
His mother now works for That’s My Child, picking up and dropping off kids. They refer to her as “Grandma Lee.”
His two sisters, Angela and Latasha, are also part of his organization. They run the mentoring program and teach dance lessons to little girls and culinary arts to the kids who have a passion for cooking.
“God…we need to talk.”
Lee moved to Florida at the age of 19, just after he married his wife, Mohona, whom he described as “the love of his life” and a “breath of fresh air.” But their relationship wasn’t without its troubles. Mohona’s father was fiercely opposed to their relationship simply because Charles was black and Mohona white.
Lee said they’re still working to repair the relationship with her father. “I know he loves me,” he said. But the racial divide still causes a bit of tension in their family. Lee said Mohona’s family weren’t even allowed to watch “The Cosby’s” growing up. But Lee saw an opportunity to overcome this adversity with love.
“Maybe if I’d never been in his life, he probably wouldn’t ever have gave love to a person that looked like me,” Lee shrugged with a grin.
In Florida, the two young newlyweds soon found themselves spiraling back into the world of dealing drugs. Lee was arrested and facing a lengthy prison sentence. “I was kind of like, ‘God, like if you for real, we need to talk,’” he said.
During his prison stint, Lee took the time to delve into his faith and develop his own relationship with God. He reached for the Bible to discover his purpose and why he was created. Lee wanted answers—about his childhood and the immense pain he went through growing up in such a troubled situation.
The answer he received from God was “I need you to go back,” Lee said. “I didn’t know that I was going to have no ‘after.’ I just knew that I was in and I needed to help.”
Lee described a vision he had one night of a luxurious facility with a restaurant in it and lots of children. He began to build his own picture of a facility in Pensacola, Florida. But God had other plans.
“When I left Montgomery, I promised I would never come back...” Lee said as he shook his head. He recalled firmly telling God he would not go back to Montgomery. But Mohona called him the next morning and told Charles that she dreamt that they had moved back to Montgomery. A month later, Lee was released from prison, and the resources they needed to begin building their ministry began coming together.
In 2008, Lee once again planted his roots in the city of Montgomery. He found that his family had grown a bit, and came home to about 13 younger nieces, nephews, and cousins. His oldest nephew said he wanted to play basketball, so they went down to the local community center, where Lee met Coach Johnathan Phillips, and discovered his own passion for coaching basketball.
“I’ve known Charles for about 10 years now. He was a volunteer basketball coach for me—that’s where I first met him,” Phillips said. “He’s great with kids and loves kids. He had a vision to start That’s My Child when I was talking to him 10 years ago, and he made it a reality.”
Lee became close with many of the kids he coached at Chisholm Community Center and often they came to him begging for help and relief from the gun- and drug-infested homes they were living in.
Lee said that’s when he realized he had an even bigger purpose than to coach
basketball. “Instead of teaching kids how to win a game for two hours, teach
them how to win at life,” he heard God say. But that would require much more
of Lee’s time to mentor and disciple these kids, and Lee still had to provide for
his own family.
He brought his concerns to God, and the concept for That’s My Dog was born—
a hotdog cart in downtown Montgomery. Of course, to bring this little
piece of Chicago to Alabama required mountains of paperwork and licensing.
Lee was told it was impossible for him to bring this dream to life.
He juggled working his jobs at Olive Garden and Sa Za for months while he
tried to push the paperwork through for the hotdog cart. Four months in,
and he was almost ready to give up. One day he sat in his car after an exasperating day of work and gospel group Mary Mary’s “Go Get It” was playing on the radio. The lyric “go get your blessing” reignited his fervor, and he kept pushing until he got approved.
Now, That’s My Dog has moved into a building on West Jeff Davis Avenue in downtown Montgomery decorated a bit like an old-school diner. His menu has grown to include a wide variety of hot dogs like the “That’s My Light of the World Dog” and the “That’s My Downtown Dog,” just to name a few.
But Lee has such a large heart that helping children in troubled situations wasn’t the only thing he was passionate about. Driving through downtown Montgomery, he saw the homeless struggling to find food and shelter on a daily basis. So Lee added the “Jesus Dog” to his menu. “It just costs a handshake or a hug,” he said. Lee said he hopes that people are able to see God’s love through his actions.
Six months after getting the That’s My Dog cart fully operational is when Lee was finally able to start That’s My Child in the local community center. He talked with Coach Phillips about working his organization into the community center’s daily program and began hosting classes for the kids.
“What if you strive to get to heaven so much, and God’s black?”
Since Montgomery was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, and Lee himself has experienced hate due to racism, That’s My Child attempts to educate the kids about their history and the sacrifices people have made for their rights to go to the same schools as white children or to vote alongside white citizens.
“We want to replace all of the other noise that’s in their ear—like the radio and all of that gangster trap music—with actual history so they can appreciate what was done for them and they can actually continue it.”
He constantly reminds his kids that what they do now has an effect on the future. Each year That’s My Child hosts a “Black to the Future Gala” that not only celebrates and commends their ancestors’ sacrifices, but also challenges the children to make their own history and continue to heal and mend the divide with love.
“It’s always good to know where you come from because that’s the only way you’ll know if where you’re going is truly successful.” Lee stressed that, although he still carries with him the hurt that came from what those before him experienced, becoming a part of the solution is critical. “Don’t let your heart get stuck,” he said. “Let’s all be a part of the solution.”
Lee has developed a close relationship with Montgomery’s Chief of Police Ernest Finley. They each do speaking engagements for each other and are always only a phone call away. The police have even developed a basketball team that regularly play against the kids at That’s My Child. Lee said this positive interaction has taught the kids that there actually is someone out there looking out for them, and that the police aren’t out to get them. Instead of shooting guns, they’re shooting threes. “They beat the boys’ butts last time,” Lee said, laughing about the outcome of their most recent game.
“They’re really intentional with the relationship they have with the community,” Lee said of the police department.
Finley calls their relationship a “true partnership.” His goal as police chief is to make Montgomery the safest city in America, adding that Lee’s organization has definitely helped him push toward fulfilling that ambition. “His passion is about uplifting people, making them whole, making them believe that [they] will be successful. And I believe in that,” Finley said.
“We can’t even make sure we’re breathing in five minutes… But we can pray to a God who can.”
Lee and his family, staff and volunteers still work tirelessly to expand their ministry through renovations and program expansions. They have huge goals—and are well on their way to achieving them. But they don’t take any of the credit themselves.
Lee talks about God like he’s his best friend. He vividly describes the conversations they have. The most powerful tool Lee says he’s got in his toolbox is prayer. He passionately expresses his love for his God and the journey that it took for him to find his purpose. “It wasn’t until I really needed God—like I was on my knees—that I was like ‘there is a God.’”
Charles Lee Talks Importance of History and Education