By Rob Rains
Rick Gray had been told for years that he had a strong physical resemblance to former major-leaguer Andy Van Slyke.
Back in 1993, however, that was about the only connection between the two men. While Van Slyke was nearing the end of a career that included playoff games, All-Star selections and Gold Glove awards, Gray – who isn’t a baseball fan – was in a prison in Kansas, serving time for bad checks and drugs.
More than two decades later, the two found themselves at the same place at the same time, as Gray – who had become a prison volunteer after his release, teaching a recovery group every Thursday night for the last 18 years – was making a presentation at a local church.
“I looked in the audience and there’s Andy,” Gray said. “I had heard through the grapevine that he might be coming. As soon as I was done I made a beeline and went right over and sat down and started talking to him. We immediately connected. He said that he’d been looking for something to get involved with for some time and this felt right.”
What Gray had started, which piqued Van Slyke’s interest, was a not-for-profit organization named Constructing Futures. Gray, a general contractor, trains former inmates to build and rehab houses. One of their projects, a house in Jennings, has just been completed and on Wednesday will be given away to a surprise winner.
It’s the first stage of a much bigger project which Gray and Van Slyke both believe is close to becoming a reality, rehabbing blighted homes in the city of St. Louis and turning them into low-income housing.
“This is the first seed that is being planted,” Van Slyke said. “Hopefully it blooms into something that’s not just singular … This is a vision and something that is deep inside his (Gray) heart.”
Since hearing that first presentation, Van Slyke has joined forces with Gray to try to spread the word and develop the unique program — which not only would help men as they try to adjust to life after prison but also would help fix up areas in St. Louis which badly need it, turning those now-empty homes into low-income housing options.
“It’s been 10 years in the making,” Gray said. “I’ve always known that this was low-hanging fruit. It’s right there for the taking. We have it, we know what we are doing. I’ve lived this myself.
“I’ve been able to stay out of prison for more than 25 years. Knowing how to paint a wall or hang drywall is not what’s kept me out of prison.”
The key, Gray said, is being able to lead a productive life – and realize that the most important skills necessary to do that, which he tries to pass along to the former inmates who go to work for him, has much more to do with life lessons than about construction details.
“The formula is very heavily influenced on recovery type principles,” Gray said. “Accountability, how to be on time, how to be correctable. I’m teaching them construction skills as on the job training, but that’s only a little part of it. It’s just the vehicle.
“I am big on helping people who are willing to do their part. That’s one of the big lessons that I teach on the job site. … This is not for guys who need it, it’s for guys who want it.”
Van Slyke, who has lived in St. Louis since he played for the Cardinals in the 1980s, has been to the prison in Pacific, Mo., with Gray and has gone back on his own. He realized quickly what Gray was doing could change lives, which is why he wanted to get involved. He visited a prison in California years ago, when he was playing for the Pirates, and was interested then in finding a way to help men as they were being released from prison.
“It was already in my mind and my heart to help give guys another swing at it,” Van Slyke said, “reaching men and giving them a chance in a lot of ways that they didn’t have growing up or if they did, they messed up. This gives them a chance to learn life skills and not go back to prison.
“When they walk out of jail, what have they got? They don’t have a car. They don’t have a job. They go back to what they know. But if we can give them some tools outside of what they know, I think most men would walk away from the life that put them there.
“It’s neat to watch. What he (Gray) is doing is much more important that dunking a basketball or making a diving catch or getting a hit in a baseball game. I know that for sure.”
The birth of an idea
Gray, who already had begun volunteering at the prison, joined other volunteers from the St. Louis Family Church who went to New Orleans to assist in the city’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina. Because he was a contractor, he was placed in charge of a group of people and assigned to houses that needed work.
“I was teaching people with no skills what to do, construction-type activity,” Gray said. “I started thinking, ‘I could do that for the guys.’ That’s where this idea came from. I started hiring guys 11, 12 years ago. Obviously, the prison work I do is a passion of mine, but this is an extension of that.”
Gray had a connection with a government official in Kansas City at the time and did his first home rehab and giveaway there. When he returned to St. Louis, he had the same idea of doing something similar and the result is the house in Jennings, which both he and Van Slyke expect to be the springboard to the bigger project in the city.
Gray said the winner of the Jennings house will sign a contract to agree to pay the taxes and insurance on the house and to keep current on the utilities and the upkeep of the yard and property.
“Giving away houses is not the vision of Constructing Futures,” Gray said. “The ultimate vision is to end up in the city. This is what I think is going to happen. They (the city) will give us one house and we’ll knock it out of the park. Then they’ll be throwing them at us. They will be giving us blocks.
“Ultimately the vision is to have multiple houses going, potentially on the same street or within a few blocks of each other and have lots of guys (working).”
Gray’s program will first begin with a 60-day pre-release program that begins in prison. After the 60 days and following their release, the men hired by Gray will spend 90 days working on one of his job sites. At that point they will have the option to stay or move on to other companies which Gray wants to associate with who are willing to hire the former inmates.
“They will have been through five months; they will have been through the gauntlet,” Gray said. “Companies will want those guys. I will tell those companies, ‘This guy will run circles around the other employees you have.’ We’re going to have a partnership in place probably with a local faith-based organization where for lack of a better term they will adopt a guy.
“They will stay in contact with him for the remainder of the year, so that if they kind of start slipping or become unresponsive we can come back and intervene and get them back on track before it’s too late.”
Gray has done the research, in addition to living that life, to know that if men can stay out of prison for a year after they are released, the odds that they will be able to stay out of prison increase dramatically. He also knows that 83 percent of men released from prison will be arrested again within three years.
Gray knows it doesn’t have to be that way. All he has to do to know that is look to some of the former inmates he has hired.
“I have one guy who got out about six years ago; I met his sister at a charitable event and she mentioned her brother just got out of prison and could use some help,” Gray said. “He called me. He didn’t have a driver’s license. He rode the bus and the Metro two hours one way to get to work. Today he drives a brand new Dodge Ram. He’s my right-hand man. He’s my buddy. We just got back from playing golf.
“We have another guy who has been working for us for a few months and is doing fantastic. He’s driving my van, which I never let anybody do. He’s living proof of what I call the formula.”
Van Slyke has had multiple conversations with some of Gray’s employees and has heard their stories. One of the common themes which emerge is how all they really want is a chance to succeed in life, and Gray is giving that to them.
“People want to feel like they are being productive,” Van Slyke said. “This is an opportunity for guys who want to change their lives. These guys have pretty amazing stories. Some of them are lucky to be alive. They had bullets whizzing by their heads or had knives pulled on them. It’s a life that’s tough.
“It’s a life that most people don’t have any concept about. I’m mesmerized a lot of times by the stories they tell me.”
Van Slyke also knows that the stories those men will tell one day, if Gray’s program succeeds, will be ones he wants to hear as well.
“We’ve tried for a very long time in this country to lock people up and ignore them,” he said. “Sooner or later most of them get out and nothing has changed between the time they walked in and the time they walked out.
“This is totally different as far as prison ministries go. You are working outside the walls, not inside the walls. The life lessons are that even though you might be free, if you put walls up in your life you are still in prison. If you put barriers up you are still going to be incarcerated by the life that you live.”
Gray knows where his passion for this work comes from, but he has been impressed by how dedicated Van Slyke has become to the project as the two have become close friends.
“We started getting together for coffee and talking and talking about the vision,” Gray said. “Andy is very big on injustice and truth. … I’ve asked him to come by the job site multiple times to talk to the guys, and he’s done that. Having someone like him involved gives us instant credibility. It puts us five years down the road instantly. He really does care about it.”
Van Slyke hopes he can help open doors for Gray that could lead to corporate financial support for the project.
“My job is to go out and learn how to ask for money, something I’ve never done in my life,” he said.
Over the years, Gray wondered if all of the time and effort he has put into this idea was worth it. He was running a successful business; he had his weekly sessions at the prison. Maybe that was all he should be doing.
Then those doubting thoughts disappeared.
“It’s been taxing, and difficult at times,” Gray said. “There’s been times where I thought, ‘you know what, my work at the prison is enough. I’m going to go back to remodeling and build some houses.’ I would double my income overnight.
“But I just feel a real calling to be doing this. To be able to go to work every day with a purpose; there’s not many people who get to do that. That’s really a gift. To see a guy’s life change – that’s amazing.”
For more information, go to constructingfuturesstl.org
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Jill Gray