Terrance Roberts Shot Down His Reputation and His Nonprofit — Can the Prodigal Son Come Back?

Terrance Roberts today.
Terrance Roberts today.
Anthony Camera

The Holly Square basketball courts are empty this afternoon. Four boys are goofing off by a nearby picnic table, brandishing make-believe guns and pretending to blow each other away: “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!”

Like a lot of kids in northeast Park Hill, the four spend most of their afternoons here, playing five-on-five hoops. They feel safe here, they say, only bothered by the cops who pull up in their patrol cars to monitor their activities.

Yes, they know of Terrance Roberts, the guy who once ran the Prodigal Son Initiative youth program here at Holly Square, and led the area’s renewal. “He used to pick up some of my family members from school,” says Frankie Chiles, one of the boys. “I know it was about cleaning up the neighborhood.”

Everyone around here knows of Roberts. He was the former member of the Park Hill Bloods who cleaned up his act and decided to help neighborhood kids make better choices than he had. He was the one who ran a free after-school program for kids who had nothing else to do, who organized neighborhood rallies and cleanup efforts, who became a symbol of redemption for the community. He was the one who spearheaded the rehabilitation of Holly Square after the shopping center at East 34th Avenue and Holly Street was firebombed in a 2008 gang attack. The community didn’t just lose a few stores in the blaze; the Holly, as it was known, had long been the commercial and cultural center for the African-American neighborhood, the place where residents would get their groceries and haircuts, where protesters clashed with police during race riots in the late 1960s, where the Park Hill Bloods congregated when poverty, violence and crack cocaine infiltrated the neighborhood in the 1980s.

Roberts envisioned a new chapter for the Holly. He raised the money to build basketball courts, a soccer field and a playground on the site; planned a peace mural on part of the blacktop that was blessed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum; and turned the naked steel pillars left over from the burned-out storefronts into “peace poles” decorated with photos and quotes from kids in Prodigal Son.

But locals also know what happened next: In September 2013, right before a rally he’d helped organize, Roberts shot 22-year-old Hasan Jones in the middle of Holly Square, paralyzing him below the waist. “I feel it’s messed up,” says Frankie. “He shot a dude for no reason.”

Roberts argues that he acted in self-defense, but he’s scheduled to stand trial for attempted murder in June. Whatever the outcome of that case, the fate of Prodigal Son has already been decided: The organization as it was envisioned by Roberts no longer exists. The “One Tribe North East” sign that marked the organization’s headquarters across the street from the Holly has been taken down; the peace mural that stretches across the blacktop is worn and cracked and strewn with trash. The only other physical reminder of Roberts’s legacy are the photos of the boys and girls he mentored affixed to the peace poles, accompanied by hopeful quotes: “Peace is never doing harm to anything or anyone.” “Peace means no war, no gangs and no shooting in Park Hill so people won’t be afraid.”

Some say Roberts’s anti-gang efforts have been taken up by others; a brand-new Boys & Girls Club now fills the eastern half of the Holly, and additional community-oriented development is being planned for the rest of the site. But others wonder whether anyone in the neighborhood has truly stepped in to fill Roberts’s sizable shoes, especially at a time when gang-related violence in and around northeast Park Hill is on an upswing. And despite all the headlines about Roberts’s fall from grace, there’s been little attention paid to those with the most at stake.

What has happened to the kids whom Prodigal Son was designed to help?

Terrance Roberts at the Holly, pre-peace courts — and before he shot Hasan Jones.
Terrance Roberts at the Holly, pre-peace courts — and before he shot Hasan Jones.
Anthony Camera

“I want the most difficult thing on the menu.” Terrance Roberts smiles mischievously as the Einstein Bros. worker behind the counter looks at him warily. He’s just teasing her; he used to work at this Cherry Creek bagel shop, and he feels he’s earned the right to joke around.
“I should get a job here again for spending money,” Roberts cracks as he digs into the yogurt and cookie he ordered. “That would really be full circle.”

Roberts, wearing a Broncos hat and T-shirt, has been struggling to find work, to keep busy. He’s done odd jobs for the construction company that built the Holly Square basketball courts, and he’s been trying to get back into organizing, working to help quell the swelling gang violence that’s already led to eight homicides so far this year. “This is one of the most vicious gang wars the city has seen since 1993,” 

he says. “We have a new generation of Bloods who were recruited because the Holly was bombed out. We have kids whose parents were OG Bloods and Crips.” But so far his efforts have been stymied; most of the politicians and officials he used to work with now see him as a liability.

For safety reasons, Roberts doesn’t want to say where he’s currently living. He’s waiting, both anxiously and nervously, for his repeatedly delayed trial to begin this summer. He never goes back to the Holly. “I love the ’hood, but there’s no reason for me to be over there right now,” he says. “It would just cause problems.” He’s more comfortable here at this bagel shop, where Prodigal Son got its start.

He got the job while living in a nearby halfway house, just out of prison after a four-year stint for being a 24-year-old previous offender caught with a MAC-11. Roberts had been running with the Park Hill Bloods since he was fourteen. His parents weren’t around much to show him any other way, and he took pride in his red-and-maroon gang colors, in how he and his brothers in arms, based at the beleaguered Holly Square, could hold their own against the Crips from Five Points, Montbello and Aurora. “Showbiz,” as he was known, rose up through the ranks, quickly becoming a shot-caller, a major player who wielded a 12-gauge and an AK-47. Getting shot in the back in 1993, during Denver’s so-called Summer of Violence, and then spending a year in prison for robbery and menacing with a gun only helped to solidify his hardened reputation. But during his second prison term, on the weapons charge, Roberts had a change of heart. He decided there were other ways to respect and represent his neighborhood: by working with the next generation to stem the bloodletting. “The reason I became a Blood was because I loved Park Hill,” he says. “To change the flow of violence, we had to help kids understand the historical value of their community, the historical value of Park Hill.”

As a former gang member, Roberts knew just how strong the lure of the streets could be for kids — so he decided to take a page from the Bloods’ playbook. “It’s not about a bunch of dumbass kids with their butts hanging out of their pants out on the street corner; it’s tribal,” he says. “They didn’t have a tribe. When you become a Park Hill Blood or Five Points Crip, you are part of a tribe. Gang leaders are community organizers. They have barbecues, they play basketball in the park, they’re outside, they’re visible, they organize movies and events. I wanted to be the guy who had the same tattoos, who wore the same hats, who had the same gang stories, but instead had a little army of organizers.”

So when he got out, he started quietly collecting donations from regulars at the bagel shop and throwing after-hours dance parties in the store for Cherry Creek kids. When management frowned on these activities, Roberts decided to take his efforts to where he believed they were really needed: northeast Park Hill. “There was no money for youth activities there,” he says. “From Quebec to Colorado Boulevard, from Colfax to I-70, there was nothing for those kids to do.”

He aimed to change that.

The Holly Square “peace courts,” before construction of the playground and soccer field.
The Holly Square “peace courts,” before construction of the playground and soccer field.
Anthony Camera

T’Ngela Wilhite remembers being a third-grader at Park Hill Elementary and nervously watching from the door as a tattooed, muscle-bound man directed a gym full of kids through dodgeball games and other activities. Roberts noticed her and encouraged her to join in, and soon she was part of his core group of elementary- and middle-school-aged Prodigal Son kids, the ones who took part in his free after-school program located first at the elementary school, then down the street at the Park Hill United Methodist Church. Every day they’d eat snacks and work on homework, then dive into an endless variety of activities that Roberts and his colleagues dreamed up: basketball, yoga, cooking classes, self-defense lessons, fencing, arts and crafts, bicycle repair — though dodgeball was a perennial favorite. There were twenty to thirty regulars, but many more would often show up for special events, like hiking trips and museum visits and whitewater rafting excursions and visits from Nuggets players. In all, Roberts figures hundreds of neighborhood kids took part in Prodigal Son in one form or another.

Roberts targeted boys and girls who weren’t big into team sports, the ones who often had nothing going on after school. “It was a way to pass the time,” recalls Bethany Foote, who got involved in the program while in high school. “A lot of the kids who came were kids who spent more time out in the streets than in physical activities or sports. Their doing something was often getting into trouble.”

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Roberts’s main rule was no violence: If you were caught fighting, you’d be suspended from the program for several days. He told them about his background, about all the mistakes he’d made. “Hearing his story, it made me realize that’s not the way I wanted to go,” remembers Shaheem Speer. “There were people who were trying to get me to join the gang, but I knew what Terrance had been through and all the stuff that could have happened if I went that way.”

Roberts taught the kids the art of organizing, telling them to seek out and recruit other kids for the program, encouraging them to clean up the neighborhood and having them march together during the Martin Luther King Marade each January. “He wanted us to give back to the community,” says Camon Finley-Ponds, who attended the program with his younger brother Cole. “He inspired us to do good in life rather than just join a gang.”

And Roberts pushed kids like T’Ngela to speak up for themselves, putting them in front of the cameras when news stations wanted to do stories about northeast Park Hill. “He threw me out there,” she remembers. “There was a crowd of people and cameras and microphones, and I had to speak about what I really felt about the program. He knew I had a lot to say; I just needed that push to be able to say it.”

Roberts approached his work like he was in a new street war: him versus the gangs. “It was a battle for the minds of the kids,” he says. “My whole mission with Prodigal Son was, whatever you guys have, we could do it better.” The plan was to throw so many activities at the kids, so many opportunities, that they wouldn’t have time to consider more dangerous alternatives. “The Bloods didn’t have time for our kids,” he says. “They didn’t know our kids.”

That doesn’t mean that some of his charges weren’t tempted. “There was a time I wanted to be a gang member,” says Camon, whose father was often away working as a trucker and whose older brother spent time in prison. “At the time, I guess I didn’t have a very strong father figure, and the guys I rolled around on bikes with, they were affiliated with gangs. But Terrance showed me I didn’t have to grow up too fast.”

The girls were targets, too. “A good 90 percent of my peers are affiliated with gangs,” says onetime Prodigal Son member Gemariah Wright, whose father was a longtime member of the Five Points Crips who has been in prison multiple times. “The peer pressure we face is massive.”

But Prodigal Son wasn’t just for kids who had close friends or family members involved in gangs, says Angela Hardy-Wilhite, T’Ngela’s mom. “My daughter is very grounded with her family and church,” she explains. “But any child can be at risk if they make a bad decision or don’t know how to speak up for themselves. It takes a village to raise a kid.”

Roberts felt he was building that village with Prodigal Son — one that helped him, too. “I hadn’t been hiking since middle school,” he says. “I hadn’t been to Water World since before I went to prison. I think it was healing for all of us.”

Then, when the Holly Square Shopping Center burned down in 2008, Roberts realized he could expand his program to help not just the boys and girls of northeast Park Hill, but an entire community reeling from the loss of the neighborhood center. He moved Prodigal Son into a formerly ramshackle building across from the now-empty Holly Square property, sharing the space with state senator Michael Johnston.And when the Urban Land Conservancy, a Denver nonprofit, purchased the Holly in 2009 and began working with local stakeholders on planning community-oriented redevelopment for the site, Roberts had a seat at the table. But Roberts wasn’t going to wait for developers to bring back the Holly; with his Prodigal Son kids as his foot soldiers, he cleaned up and prepared the western half of the site for what became known as the “peace courts,” what Roberts called an “interim-use development project” that would stay in place until a more permanent plan was decided upon.

Part of that plan came together in 2012, when the Anschutz Foundation donated $5 million to construct the Nancy P. Anschutz Center on the eastern half of the site, a facility that would house a Boys & Girls Club, community spaces and Prodigal Son’s new headquarters. Once again, Prodigal Son kids had a say in the plan, giving feedback to the developers about what the project should look like. The kids often sported the green, brown and tan colors that Roberts encouraged as part of his new “Colorado Camouflage Movement” — as opposed to Crips blues or Bloods reds. His army of young organizers was on a roll.

Roberts figured the new Boys & Girls Club would make parts of his own after-school program obsolete, so once the Anschutz Center opened, he planned to shift his focus with the kids. He envisioned a community-service-based leadership program to help plan and develop interim-use projects in other struggling areas of the city, as his group had done with the Holly Square athletic facilities and peace mural.

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His first target was a site in Five Points. “The kids could have ownership of their community through ridding it of blight, with playgrounds and gazebos and family areas, just like Holly Square,” says Roberts. “The Holly being burned down, for better or worse, it gave me a platform to show what people like me could do.”

It was all going so well — until September 20, 2013.

Gemariah Wright was shocked by what happened with her mentor, “Uncle Terrance.”
Gemariah Wright was shocked by what happened with her mentor, “Uncle Terrance.”
Anthony Camera

T’Ngela Wilhite was supposed to be there that day, helping out with the “One Love Black Unity Rally” that Roberts had been working to plan. Shaheem Speer was supposed to be there, too, as part of a community-service project. Neither ended up going because of other obligations, and in hindsight they’re glad they didn’t. Soon enough, they heard the news: Roberts had shot Hasan “Munch” Jones, a young man he knew from the neighborhood, with a 9mm pistol — a gun that, as a convicted felon, he wasn’t supposed to have.

“I feel sorry for what happened, and I am remorseful,” says Roberts now. “Why would I want to shoot a young man who was pretty much my friend at one point?”

But he insists he acted in self-defense, that Jones and his fellow Bloods gang members had surrounded him at Holly Square after a series of heated altercations that day, and that Jones had threatened him with a knife. “They were trying to kill me,” says Roberts. “I had to do something to save my life.” It was the culmination of tensions that had been growing between Roberts and members of his former gang. He says he was accused of working too closely with the cops, of being a snitch, that he was selling out his former friends for success and attention. It’s why he had that pistol with him that day: “I was in fear for my life,” he says. “It’s the same reason the mayor and the governor have bodyguards.”

Roberts believes his self-defense argument is bolstered by the fact that, despite now being confined to a wheelchair, Jones is currently facing attempted-first-degree-murder charges of his own. Last August, Jones was arrested for a drive-by shooting three months earlier; he’s scheduled to appear in court on May 1. Several sources say Jones is also suspected in the death of Ny’Ari Sanique “NyNy” Hines, the two-year-old daughter of Jones’s former girlfriend Quisa Antoine. The toddler died on August 18, 2014, the day Jones was arrested, and sources say police found Jones alone in an Aurora apartment with the dead child. The Arapahoe County Coroner has sealed Ny’Ari Hines’s autopsy; so far, no charges have been filed in connection with the child’s death. (Jones and his family have no comment at this time, says Jabulani Abdalla, Jones’s uncle.)

Some people think that Jones’s track record since he was shot complicates the case against Roberts. Those people include Reverend Leon Kelly, the longtime activist behind Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, who was an early mentor for Roberts. “It causes me to ask God, ‘Why?’” Kelly says. “I understand that things happened with Terrance and Munch. But if Terrance would have killed this kid, would NyNy still be alive? Instead, he’s still going through the neighborhood, shooting other kids?

“People might wonder, why is [Roberts] being prosecuted for defending himself against someone who is tearing up our neighborhood?” adds Kelly. “But we can’t take the law in our own hands. You cannot become a vigilante.”

But Kelly also believes that threats from his former gang brothers weren’t the only demons Roberts was battling when he pulled the trigger that day. While Prodigal Son had received about $100,000 a year in intervention funding in 2012 and 2013 for two new outreach workers to work with youth ages twelve to 24 who were already caught up in the legal system, Roberts was still struggling to raise enough contributions to keep the outreach side of his nonprofit afloat, the part designed to help kids before they got into trouble. Money got so tight that he’d nearly shuttered the program earlier in 2013. His sixty-, eighty-hour work weeks had taken a toll on his family life, too; Roberts and his wife divorced in 2013. “I used to talk to this kid over and over again, trying to warn him as to the way he should carry himself to be successful in areas that are considered war zones,” says Kelly. “The average person could not face the challenges he had to face.”

Roberts’s challenges have only increased since he shot Jones, and these days he feels betrayed by many of those he once considered friends and supporters. He’s angry at politicians like Mayor Michael Hancock; Roberts feels the mayor abandoned him when his redemption story became complicated. He’s angry with organizations like the Anschutz Foundation and Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission for never directly funding Prodigal Son, despite the talk about helping northeast Park Hill and fighting gang violence. He’s even angry at Reverend Kelly, his former mentor, and NBA star Chauncey Billups, a longtime friend; he doesn’t think Billups has done enough to invest in northeast Park Hill, where he grew up, too. “You wonder why Terrance Roberts became an angry black activist?” says Roberts, his temper rising. “I think as much as the Anschutz Center has helped the community, it has also destroyed the community, because of what it did to me. They abandoned me because I didn’t talk and act the way they wanted me to. I publicly defended myself against the same group of Bloods about which the city is now saying, ‘How do we stop them?’”

Still, Roberts knows he’s responsible for what happened at the Holly on September 20, 2013 — and more than anything, he regrets the impact it had on Prodigal Son. “Did it hurt the program after I shot Hasan?” he says. “Of course it hurt the brand and reputation of the program.” Not long after he was arrested and posted bond for the shooting, Roberts told his board of directors he was stepping down.
Meanwhile, the kids who’d been in the program struggled to make sense of what had happened. “I was shocked and I was hurt that it was actually Uncle Terrance and not someone else,” says Gemariah. “I can’t say I was disappointed, because everyone falls short. Everyone has that time in their life when they fall back and fall short. But I was surprised that the step he took wasn’t just a step back, it was tremendous. He fell back really far.”

Never again would Gemariah or any of the other kids interviewed for this story have anything to do with Prodigal Son or its successor.

Kevin Cowans helped relaunch Prodigal Son as the Impact Empowerment Group.
Kevin Cowans helped relaunch Prodigal Son as the Impact Empowerment Group.
Anthony Camera

It’s late Monday afternoon, and the Jack A. Vickers Boys & Girls Club inside the Anschutz Center is hopping. Younger kids, ages six to twelve, play pool and foosball in the central rec area, while those thirteen to eighteen play video games on a flat-screen TV and lounge around on couches in the teen area. Other teens are playing basketball in the gym, working with staffers on their homework in the education center, or laying down beats in the recording studio in the tech lab. The Boys & Girls Club, which charges $2 a year for a membership that includes daily hot meals, opened in September 2013, just after Roberts shot Jones. Since then, says John Barry, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, the operation has grown increasingly busy. Most weekdays, when the club is open from around 2:30 to 9 p.m., the club hosts about 150 kids, nearly capacity, and during the summer, when it’s open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., there’s often a wait list.

“It’s a wonderful campus, when you think about it,” says Barry, pointing out that the club works closely with other facilities in the area, like the adjacent Pauline Robinson branch library, the HOPE Center, a Denver community agency that helps children and adults with developmental disabilities, and the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center and Skyland Park across the street. The Anschutz Center also houses a multi-use community room and offices for the Mi Casa Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps Latino and working families, and the Impact Empowerment Group — the successor organization to Prodigal Son.

“I had to make a decision: Do we continue, or do we close our doors?” remembers Haroun Cowans, executive director of the Impact Empowerment Group, whom Roberts had appointed as chair of Prodigal Son’s board of directors in 2013. “I felt there was still a void that we needed to fill.”

The first step was changing the name of Prodigal Son not long after the shooting. “It was about refreshing ourselves to the community,” says Cowans, a former bank manager and entrepreneur who’s also CEO of a small security firm. “To say we are still here, we are still at the core, we are still doing the historical work that we had done.” Prodigal Son’s old office across the street is being transformed into a community resource center that houses a small food pantry that’s open on Tuesdays and Saturdays; a community garden will take root behind the building this summer, and part of the space is being redesigned to house a “cop shop,” where police volunteers will help people with citizen complains, accident reports and other tasks.

The nonprofit’s after-school program was phased out with the opening of the Boys & Girls Club, as Roberts had planned, but his idea for a community leadership program in other blighted parts of the city hasn’t panned out. Instead, Cowans says he’s working on two new youth endeavors: a chess-based program designed to teach kids strategic thinking and problem-solving, and a career-counseling program through the local nonprofit Youth Directions. “We’re focusing on collaborations,” explains Cowans, whose quiet, reserved manner contrasts sharply with Roberts’s forceful and energetic demeanor. “I believe firmly that you don’t want to create redundancy. Programming for youth is very important, but it’s quality, not quantity.”

Not everyone is as optimistic about the Impact Empowerment Group’s approach — and that includes Bryan Butler, Cowans’s predecessor as CEO of the nonprofit. After Roberts stepped down, Cowans and the rest of the board had asked Butler, formerly one of Prodigal Son’s two outreach workers, to act as the nonprofit’s interim executive director — but Cowans and Butler soon had a falling out, and Butler left the organization last October, with Cowans stepping in to replace him. “I didn’t feel we were moving in the right direction, and I am sure he didn’t think I was moving the organization in the right direction,” says Butler. “He wanted to move away from any kind of outreach components, and more towards workforce development. I am not against workforce development, but it has to be tied to other programming. You have to take a holistic approach for better outcomes for these kids.”

Butler tried a holistic approach while working to relaunch Prodigal Son as Impact Empowerment Group, he says. He helped organize a summer festival and a job fair in the neighborhood last summer, helped plan an outdoor mural for the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center, and was developing a family-based outreach program targeting at-risk youth. But working in the shadow of the Roberts shooting wasn’t easy. In April 2014, Butler held a community meeting to introduce local parents to the new iteration of the nonprofit; only ten people showed up. “We lost some ground, for sure,” says Butler, who’s now developing a Montbello-based nonprofit called Clarion Outreach Services that targets at-risk youth.

Many of the former Prodigal Son kids and their parents say they’ve never heard of the Impact Empowerment Group.

Preventing youth violence isn’t easy, says Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It takes careful screening of kids for proven risk factors, like problem behaviors and hanging out with delinquent peers, and a network of comprehensive, evidence-based support and therapy programs. “These things take time,” says Kingston.
“Community change is a long-term, sustainable process. It is going to take decades. Can we invest in preventative infrastructure, and keep investing in it to build our social systems in a positive way?”

That’s exactly what anti-gang efforts in northeast Park Hill and elsewhere are trying to accomplish, says Paul Callahan, program manager of the federally funded Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver; GRID’s in-school gang-resistance training program has reached nearly 2,000 kids in northeast Denver. “When you look at prevention, you try to put as many programs into the community as you can,” he says. “One person is not the solution; it’s really a collective approach.”

But if the new programs taking root at the Holly are really going to help stem the violence that has long plagued northeast Park Hill, one currently missing element needs to be added to the mix, Butler believes: people out in the community, on the streets, making sure that resources are being connected with the kids who need them most. “The kids who are being missed are the kids who were missed last year, and the year before — the high-risk youth,” he says. “The need right now in northeast Park Hill is for somebody who can go and work with the young men and women who are gang-affiliated, or at risk of joining gangs, and help them out.”

That somebody has to be a leader, says Butler, someone who’s authentic, someone with whom youth can identify, but who will also call kids out when they screw up. Someone with the personality and force to make nonviolence and community organizing cool. Someone like Terrance Roberts, in other words. “Terrance was a real cat to these kids,” says Butler, who acknowledges that Roberts’s approach didn’t work for everyone — and eventually led to his undoing. But at least he was out there, Butler adds, reaching some of those boys and girls who otherwise might be lost to the streets.

And some of the efforts being tried at the Holly seem misguided, Butler says, pointing to the street barricades that the city erected last June at the southwest corner of Holly Square to discourage drive-bys. The police hailed the move as a success, since there were no shootings in the area all summer. But some community members, who felt they had no say in the barricades’ installation, weren’t convinced. “It made our community look like Beirut,” says Butler. “A local kid came up to me and said, ‘Are they trying to keep other people out, or are they trying to keep us in?’”

The peace courts in front of the Anschutz Center today.
The peace courts in front of the Anschutz Center today.
Terrance Roberts

If Terrance Roberts beats the attempted-murder rap this summer, he has big plans. He wants to follow through with his idea of interim-use developments in blighted communities, replicating the rebirth of the Holly across Denver and beyond. “I have a solution to gang violence; it’s development,” he says. “It brings jobs, it brings money, it brings attention, it cleans up a community, it makes it an honorable place.” He’s eyeing spots in Sun Valley, west of I-25, as well as communities much farther afield, like the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and Chicago’s South Side.

Could he ever again work in the original Holly Square, at the new iteration of the nonprofit he started? “That’s a good question,” says Cowans. “I don’t want to get into that.”

Wherever Roberts ends up, many of those he mentored in Prodigal Son seem to be on the path to success. Bethany Foote is a sophomore at South Louisiana Community College and aims to transfer to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the fall; she plans to work with at-risk kids. Shaheem Speer is in tenth grade at George Washington High School, where he’s on the varsity basketball team. Camon Finley-Ponds is a freshman at East High School, where he plays JV football and basketball, while his brother Cole plays football, basketball and lacrosse at High Point Academy in Aurora. According to their mother, Tracy Owens, the brothers both get As and Bs. Gemariah Wright is a sophomore at South High School, where she plays JV basketball and finds the time to be an usher at her church and take part in a dance ministry while still maintaining a 3.4 GPA. “The only thing I don’t get in is sleep,” she says.

And T’Ngela Wilhite, the shy third-grader whom Roberts convinced to join the program, is now a sophomore at Mullen High School, an admissions-based college-prep school, where she’s managing the football team, contributing to the school paper, and interning with the school’s sports-medicine program. “Now when I see things I want to do, I will go after it,” she says. “Terrance helped me be a leader.”
But some kids may have fallen through the cracks when the nonprofit collapsed. “For many years, we were batting a thousand,” admits Roberts. “Now we can’t say that.”

“The last time I was there [at the Holly] last summer, instead of being in the Boys & Girls Club, I saw a lot of kids just walking around the streets, and a lot of those kids were at Prodigal Son when there were summer activities,” says Bethany.

The Holly itself is on the verge of another transformation. The Holly Area Redevelopment Project, a group of neighborhood stakeholders, is considering development proposals for the rest of the Holly Square site. Options include affordable-housing units, a charter elementary school, a nonprofit grocery store and a dedicated space for the Colorado Flyers Denver Volleyball Club. This means that the basketball courts, soccer field, playground and peace mural currently on the site will soon be demolished — and it’s possible that the peace poles might have to be moved or removed, too.

While the Holly’s peace courts were never meant to be permanent, their imminent disappearance is dispiriting to Prodigal Son alumni. It means there will be one less remnant, one less reminder, of what they achieved at the Holly. “All of the things being discussed to be built on it are probably well needed in the community, but to have it so it’s like what we did never happened, that would truly be sad,” says T’Ngela. It’s not just about remembering their accomplishments, she says; it’s about giving younger kids a place where they can hang out and feel protected, beyond the set hours and structured activities and closed doors of the Boys & Girls Club and nearby rec center. Giving them an alternative to the streets, like T’Ngela and her friends had with Prodigal Son. “There are no other basketball courts outside in northeast Park Hill,” she says. “We put them there so people could go outside again and feel safe.”

That’s why the four boys hanging out by the Holly Square basketball courts on this spring afternoon are surprised and upset to learn that the courts will be going away.

“I don’t know why they would take them down,” complains one.

“Everyone isn’t going to go to the Boys & Girls Club,” adds another. “We can’t just go in there all the time and play.”

They will just have to find somewhere else to goof off, blasting away at each other with their make-believe Glocks.


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