Former gang member starts business in Greensboro to give teens another option

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — With ongoing gun violence across the Triad involving teenagers either pulling the triggers or becoming victims, a local business owner is trying to give them another option.  

After experiencing the lifestyle and studying it, Willie Pettiford considers himself a gang historian.  

“I became involved in street gangs when I was eight years old.” said Pettiford, of Backyard Flames “Big Will’s Famous Hot Dogs.”

At a young age, Pettiford found himself sucked into gang activity in his Durham neighborhood. 

“I didn’t know it wasn’t a game – it was a real lifestyle that came with it that would ultimately cost me my career at 19 years old,” he said. 

Despite going to college on a football scholarship and graduating from NC A&T, he’s still reeling from those consequences more than a decade later. He said he still isn’t able to get a good paying job because of his record. 

So he decided to work for himself. He combined his background in behavioral health, in which he created a gang-prevention program called Voices of the Struggle, with his new business venture. 

“I felt like I could bring back that good tasting hot dog that we used to have when we was little,” he said. 

Backyard Flames “Big Will’s Famous Hot Dogs” was created to give older teenagers an opportunity to earn money the right way. 

Since he opened his hot dog stand last September, he’s battled with getting teens to stay committed to the job. 

“I’ll tell them to come and they say, ‘yeah I’ll be there,’ and then they don’t show up,” he explained. 

He said it’s hard to convince older teens living a lifestyle of money, drugs and violence that there’s a different way to live, especially when that’s what a lot of them see on a daily basis. 

“Since I’ve started this mission (Voices of the Struggle) in 2014, I’ve lost 67 kids,” he said. “It’s to the point where now it’s just information to me. My heart don’t hurt no more; I’m not sad no more. I don’t know even know how to feel because it’s become a norm at this point,” Pettiford said. 

He reminds his mentees often, that kind of life doesn’t last forever. 

“When that judge drops that gavel on you and everything stops and your whole life is at a standstill, and you’re trying to figure our where’s that money at now? Where are my friends at now? What can I do? ” he said. 

While Pettiford admits, historical factors have played a role in the creation of gang life and illegal activities involving communities of color, he said now is a time when knowing better means doing better. 

“We can’t blame the world forever. At some point, we’re going to have to start blaming ourselves and start waking up ourselves. Because the knowledge is out there now,” he said. 

Pettiford uses money earned at the hot dog stand to give back to the kids in the community. 

For those wanting to grab a hot dog, they’ll have the opportunity to do so this Friday. Backyard Flames “Big Will’s Famous Hot Dogs” will be at the education center at 509 Elam Street. 

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