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New Hopes, New Dreams

By Margo Harakas
Staff Writer

May 2, 2001

At 14, Brian Collier's life was dropping with the certitude of an anchor loosed in Biscayne Bay. He toked before school and drank hard liquor after. His playground was the ugly streets of Fort Lauderdale's Sunland neighborhood, his homies the gang Thug Life.

"I didn't get into a lot of things they did, but as I got older, I would have," admits the quiet-spoken 17-year-old. "They were known for assault and battery, armed robbery and auto theft. Every day, it seems, one would go to jail." Get arrested "and you were like the big man."

Brian, whose two older brothers spent a combined 10 years in prison, saw in time the fallacies in the swagger of the tough life.

Fleeing flying bullets, as he did one morning, simply didn't constitute fun. "I was with some boys on this path. These teenagers came up and gunshots were fired. I don't know if they were firing in the air or firing at us, but I ran," says the thin teenager with the penchant for cocking his head to the side when he speaks.

Then there were the fights. And that pivotal chat with the cops.

Sweating in the back seat of a police car one night, being questioned about the gang, reason finally rippled through his head. "I need to stop this," he told himself.

It would take another year for him to ease on out. A fortunate introduction to the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County Creative Arts Unit, plus a commitment to his church, would provide the exit.

Today, Brian Collier is his club's nominee as Youth of the Year, an honor that brought him his first trip to Disney World. He's also the paid script editor for the club's 2001 original theatrical production, Imagine That!, which debutsthis weekend.

And he's talking college, a word he never before thought, let alone uttered.

"I guess it's a state of maturity," says the engaging young man who through poetry and playwriting has redefined his possibilities and himself.

A few weeks back, this Fort Lauderdale High School senior ran into the gang member who'd turned him on to drugs. The jail-weary fellow said he was trying to calm down, not mess up. He seemed pleased to hear his former pal was planning to go to college. Most striking was something in the fellow's demeanor. "I could see it in his eyes," Brian says slowly. "He kind of looks up to me."

Brian smiles, shakes his head at the irony. "And I used to look up to him."



I'm lonely, depressed

Engulfed in much stress

Touch, touch, touch

Make more of my less.

-- Brian Collier



By 5 p.m., blocks in from Sunrise Boulevard and down the street from Sunland Park, foot traffic and halting cars begin to ply the streets. Commerce commences. Sex? Crack cocaine? No need to whisper.

"You don't want to be on this street at night," warns Brian, who knows the shadows like one who has inhabited them.

A couple of blocks over, small kids play in littered side streets. Men in undershirts, sprawled on folding chairs and boxes, slurp beer.

"Everything you see here is negative," says Brian, who makes this 18-block walk daily from the bus stop to his home.

"This man coming down the street here, he's going to buy drugs." Does so every day.

In the park, men huddled on a bench beneath an overarching tree smoke pot.

"They're smoking with all these children playing around. That's what they grow up seeing," Brian says scornfully. "That's what I saw."

A few weeks ago, children in this same park came close to witnessing a stabbing. Two boys were shooting hoops, says Brian, and the smaller of the two accidentally hit the other in the face with the ball. Enraged, the ball-struck boy pounded the other, smashed him in the head with a metal trashcan, then ran home to grab a knife. Luckily, the police showed up.

"It's this environment, the pressures of the neighborhood," he says, trying to explain the physics of a poorly aimed ball triggering a possibly lethal response. "If someone messes with you, you gotta get him back, otherwise everybody says you're soft."

It's a contagion virulent as any borne by germs. And from 13 to 15, Brian was afflicted.

"If you don't take part in the negativity, it's like you don't belong. I couldn't beat them, so I joined them.

"Thank God, for change."



Physically I show no tears

But my emotions have tides to cry.

-- B.C.



Brian slipped into gang life after his beloved grandfather died six years ago. "He was that big wall I could lean on. He was my buddy," says Brian. "He was a very firm man, but at the same time, he was loving."

When Grandpa lived, Brian was a straight-A student. A couple of years later, he was hanging with the Thugs and his grades plummeted. "I knew I was smart, but I acted dumb."

Brian, his mom and five brothers had moved into his grandparents' home after his parents divorced. "I was 6 years old. I haven't seen my father since." It's hard to tell whether the anger outweighs the confusion in the voice. The pain is clear.

Brian credits his mother, Mary Collier, for any positive attributes he possesses. "Mom has been a good parent. When we've gone wrong, it's nothing she did," he says.

The waywardness, he thinks, "is us being males, looking for that father figure in our life and looking to the wrong people."

Brian has always been the most sensitive of her boys, his mother says, always had a tendency to hide his feelings. He has also always seemed more mature than his years.

"In many ways," says Mary, "he's like his grandfather, easygoing, friendly, very funny."

Mary has tried to impress upon her boys, "You can do anything you want to do. The opportunities are there. You just have to apply yourself."

She's also stressed the importance of faith. Their church is The Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, where Brian sings in the choirs, ushers and writes poems for special occasions.

So committed is Brian to this faith community that he takes two buses to travel 90 minutes to choral practice.

It's there that he found a father figure, O'Neal Dozier, former pro football player and military man turned pastor. "If I follow what he says," says Brian, "things always come out with positive results."

The respect is mutual.

"Brian's a very, very special young man ... very gifted," says Dozier, who laughs telling how Brian did an imitation of him for the Easter program. "He copied me to the T."

Brian, Dozier says, is "looked up to not only by the kids, but by some adults, too."

"I don't know what they see," says Brian, scratching on his ever-present notepad. "When people give me recognition, I think, ĀWhy.' But as I mature, I begin to see I am a gifted person. I've begun to grow up and accept things as they are."



the beautiful rose

Growing away from all the weeds.

-- B.C.



"The brother got a makeover," says Brenda Fulmore, service director for the Boys & Girls Clubs Creative Arts Unit and one of Brian's main boosters. "He was dodging bullets, he was running corners. So many things could have taken him out."

But when presented the opportunity for change, she says, "he held on to it."

Along with Dozier, the club, says Brian, was his salvation, though he evinced little enthusiasm when a former girlfriend first dragged him to the clubhouse a little more than two years ago. "I knew about Boys & Girls Clubs because I had two brothers who worked at the clubs. I figured it was just a waste of time."

Wrong.

The worn structure, pipes showing from the ceiling, was different. "Instead of pool tables, there were keyboards and drum sets," says Brian. "There was no gym. The gym was replaced by a stage."

Brian had found his space. "I fell in love with the staff, the place, with everything."

And why not. Helping write and produce an original play with original music and dance was immensely more exciting than hanging out on street corners, smoking marijuana and getting tipsy on vodka and gin.

Fulmore sensed when she met Brian that he "was uniquely different. He was extremely focused. He was like someone who had taken the time to evaluate himself. He had an idea of what he wanted and a road map of how to get there.

"I didn't know about his background. I knew something happened in his life to help structure him, but I didn't know what it was."

For Brian, the club was like the gasping gulp of fresh air after a long breath holding. Under the oxygenated environment, that both channeled and challenged his talents, Brian blossomed.

Here he found a job, first as a youth aide, then this year as script editor. "Brian takes all the parts and molds them into a coherent whole," says Fulmore. "He's the visionary."

Though a novice, Brian shows a sophisticated patience in dealing with his peers.

"Brian," says a female member of the cast, "you should put those words back in there."

Brian says he'll discuss insertion of the deleted speech with the director. "We'll work it out," he assures the girl, who would like to pad her part.

"I had to put together the ideas of everybody in the cast," he says, explaining how he worked up the script. "The ideas were coming in constantly. I'd finish one scene and there'd be more ideas waiting for me.

"I had to reject some ideas, because they just didn't fit [the story line]."

It's not easy to delete your peers' words. But it works two ways, says Brian. "I've been corrected by them, too. They'd say this or that was a bad idea and they were right."

Mary sometimes worries that Brian, who has asthma, may be overextending himself. "I don't want him to get too pressured. He's up at 5:30 in the morning and he works sometimes till 8 at night. He's always going. People ask him to do things and he doesn't like to disappoint them."

Brian just shrugs.

Today, he has ambitions, of being a journalist, a poet, a playwright, a filmmaker. "I can see things happening, doors opening in my life.

"There's so much I want to do."

His pastor tells him whatever secular career he chooses will be only temporary. Ultimately, he says, Brian "will go into full-time ministry."

As for the quicksand influences of his neighborhood, Brian says, "Even though it's such a bad place, it becomes an inspiration to me."

Each junkie, pimp and dealer reinforces his mantra: "I can't be like this. I don't want to be like this. I won't be like this."

Besides, he says, "There's a lot of people who look up to me. People I can't let down."

Margo Harakas can be reached at mharakas@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4728.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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