Repairing the Breach by Giving Back

Interviews with Michael Hall, Kevin Ellison, and Daniel Young.

The Urban News recently met with three of the men involved in programs and volunteer work whose aim is to mentor youth and guide them into a good life.

Men making a diffference
Men making a difference in our communities. (L-R): Rick Montgomery, Robert Simmons, Recardo Howard, Jon Tre, Pastor Shadrach Waters, Lionell Hightower, Gary Flynn, Michael Hall, and Antony Newell. Photo: Renato Rotolo/The Urban News

Each of the men we spoke with—Michael Hall, Kevin Ellison, and Daniel Young—has turned his own life around after early missteps and is now both a leader and a role model in the Asheville community. For our annual men’s issue celebrating fathers, we focus on these three men who, as fathers and sons themselves, are determined that the wisdom of elders—some learned the hard way—will be absorbed by the next generation.

Michael Hall
Michael Hall Photo: Renato Rotolo

Michael Hall

Michael Hall moved from West Baltimore, MD, to Elizabeth City, NC in 1999, when he was 27.

Michael had lost his mother when he was just 14, and he was not in touch with his father. So, without a stable older man in his life, he got involved in what he gently refers to as “organized groups”—i.e., gangs—that sold drugs and did other unhealthy things. He was in pain, he told us, without a father to guide him and bereft by his mother’s death, but as a young man, just a boy still, that pain was hard to admit.

“I covered it up,” he says, “by being a thug.”

And, unsurprisingly, one thing led to another, and he ended up spending 14 years in prison for attempted murder and armed robbery.

During his time behind bars, he told us, “I didn’t do groups inside, just self-reflection. Most people don’t adjust well in prison, they get worse. I was focused on Yeshua—the Jewish messiah, not Christianity specifically.”

Michael hadn’t had contact with his two daughters in all those years, but when he was released in 2017 he came to western North Carolina, settling in Flat Rock.

It wasn’t the best situation, he told us. That small town had racial issues, and it was not easy for a released felon to find a niche there.

So that summer he moved up to Asheville. He joined a church, and soon he was leading a men’s group there. Then he started leading community-based men’s groups, such as a fatherhood group on Zoom. He quickly discovered he was not the only man in the group who had had no father figure in his life when he was growing up. So when he married and had two more children, he wanted to make sure he and others could be good fathers to their own children.

After a time, he was made program director of the organization, Generation to Generation, which partners with another Asheville mentoring group, My Daddy Taught Me That.

“We offer coaching about manhood, fatherhood. If fathers would be what they should be in the home, children’s lives would be so different.”

In meeting with other mentoring leaders, Michael shared his passion to reach young men who need guidance; some of them are young fathers even at the high school level.

“We do summer school for students from sixth through 12th grade, from ages about 12 through 19. It’s three hours a day, three days a week. What we do is work to get fathers and youth united in the community. We’re there to establish a standard in the community. Because without successful families, there are no successful communities.”

Kevin Ellison
Kevin Ellison
Photo: Renato Rotolo

Kevin Ellison

Kevin Ellison grew up in the Bronx, in New York City. Four years ago he came to Asheville and discovered how much he liked the slower pace and the opportunities here.

Like several of the other men profiled in this issue, Mr. Ellison was not always on the straight and narrow path. He was incarcerated for some 21 years, and scarcely knew his two daughters in New York during that long time.

But here he found ways to turn his life around, to transition from someone who needed guidance and help to someone who could give that guidance to others. And now, he says, “I’m six years home as of yesterday. I’ve made the transition back into society.”

Kevin was fortunate in that when he came to Asheville he had a close friend who was able to introduce him to other people and new opportunities. One of his first accomplishments was helping open the downtown club Room 9. Now, some four years later, he is deeply involved in schools programs here—helping mentor preteens and teenagers, especially in the sixth-to-eighth-grade time when children are facing the pitfalls, temptations, dreams, and, sometimes, nightmares of growing up.

One crucial benefit is that for minority children, it’s important to have role models and guides they can relate to.

“Children communicate with someone who looks like them,” says Kevin. “My comprehension level and intelligence are there. We help them get their grades together, we understand child psychology and sociology.”

He and his colleagues tutor some of these preteens and teens, keep them busy with learning and working.

He says, “When you’re going into high school, getting ready to go there, thinking about turning 18, that’s when things happen. If you have too much idle time . . .”

That was one of the pitfalls he faced, but now Kevin and others can offer summer employment for the boys they work with.

Among the new focuses in his life, Kevin has his own catering business, Ellison’s NY Carolina Eats. “I’ve got a wedding coming up, a graduation coming up,” he tells us. “I started in 2021, had a food truck for a while, and there were some ups and downs, so I switched to catering.” He also manages a few artists from SC who like to come to Asheville for greater exposure.

Besides basic tutoring and helping young people find and center their better selves, Kevin has developed a philosophy that he lives by. “This is another piece of wisdom, and it’s for everybody in the schools and after-school system. It’s for the music teacher in middle school, the secretary in high school,” he says, showing us his colorful outfit. “When you’re among children in an educational setting, they feed off your colors. I dress every day in rich, bright colors.”

As we finish our talk, he adds another piece of wisdom he has developed for himself.

“One thing I’ve learned is that the biggest chance we take in our life is closing our eyes and opening them. You have to have a plan from A to P. How you feelin’ this morning? I woke up, I’m free. I’m blessed, I can deal with the rest.

Daniel Young
Daniel Young
Photo: Renato Rotolo

Daniel Young, a.k.a. Turk da Jerk

Originally from Asheville, Daniel Young, 47, is a 1994 graduate of Asheville High School. Now a father of four, he grew up in the Hillcrest public housing community, and community remains his passion.

Daniel has been working with kids since 2005 through a program he leads called Positive Steps. It focuses on youth mentorship, “crossover” kids, a positive ideology, compassion—because “I know the secrets from good to bad.”

Daniel’s story is not atypical, either in facing problems during his youth or in looking at them head-on and correcting them.

“I did five years in prison, some of it at the same time as my father. I idolized our father, but he wasn’t in my life. But,” he says, “he made me see the problems when we were in prison together. At one point I had an altercation with guards and he said, “Do you want to keep doing this?” So later on, I chose to do a 180 and decided to change my life.”

One clear thing he learned from his father in prison was that we all face choices, and “Whatever your choices, you have to pay the consequences.” And that’s one of the lessons he applies to the young people he works with.

“I’ve turned my lessons into blessings. When you face a wall, any obstacle,” he says, “put it down and use it as a stepping stone.” Nodding to Kevin and Michael, “We all had felonies on our record. We had to prove what we’re bringing to the table.”

Daniel, for example, led a cooking academy at Asheville Middle School, and over four years worked with, and taught, four different groups of children.

“Now, they’re on a good track in life. In fact, one boy plays with the Asheville Symphony—and besides that, one jewel I’ve planted with all of them is that they know how to cook for themselves. Because one way or another, you gotta feed yourself.”

He himself has several streams of income, including transportation, a janitorial service, and his catering business. Currently he is also teaching a bartending class, and working to get funding to get young people certified. And, like other men who have not just stepped away from bad choices made earlier in life, Daniel is repairing them.

“At one point I was tearing down the community, but now we’re replanting seeds and fixing what we did wrong. My goal is to fix all the things I did wrong. I want when my time is over to have done so many things to fix the things I did wrong. So I say, you have to stay God-conscious, you have to stay on your path. You have God inside of you, and that conscience, your conscience, is always at work.”

Turk da Jerk’s final word to us: “I keep myself to a standard, and I do it for these kids.”