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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Frankie Gist is no stranger when it comes to the issue of troubled local youth. He used to be one.

“So it’s hard being a young person growing up on this side of town in the streets,” he told me as the two of us recently walked down a residential street in southeast Winston-Salem. “All they see is the guns and negativity, the fights, the cussing.”

Gist is 23 years old. Today, he spends his time doing motivational speaking, street preaching and helping point local young people in positive directions through this outreach organization he calls “Hope Dealers.”

He’s come a long way in the last seven years. When he was 16, he was out on the streets.

“I got in with the wrong people,” he said. “I got three charges in one month.”

One was breaking and entering. Another was a drug charge. The third involved an assault.

He never served any time because he says a judge told him to stay out of trouble for a year and his record would be cleared.

“The first thing [the judge] asked me was, ‘Young man, what would you like to be?’ I told him what I would like to be and he said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘Do you think you will be that leader for your people if you’re back in jail?’”

So Gist has focused his energy on what he calls youth-centered, positive activities in parts of the Triad he feels need it.

He even organized what he called a “peace gathering” in southeast Winston-Salem in early July after a 5-year-old was shot and killed. Winston-Salem police have charged three teenagers with that crime.

“The reason these kids commit crimes is because there’s nothing for them to do,” he said. “There are no jobs.”

But when confronted with the news the economy’s booming — especially for African-Americans, he says a core problem involves those who’ve committed crimes and are trying to get back on their feet. It’s almost impossible to find a job when you have a felony on your record. And many of these people, he says, go back to committing crimes.

Turning this around, he feels, will take local business owners having enough courage to hire these people when they get out of prison.

“And even the people who have criminal records can start their own businesses,” he said. “You have a felony on your record, you could start three lawn care businesses. People who ask you to cut their grass aren’t going to ask you about your record. They just want their grass cut.”

But Gist stresses he’s trying to reach the young people before they get into trouble. And it starts, he says, with them feeling good about themselves.

“And when you value yourself, you value other people’s belongings and other people’s lives. You won’t have to steal from them. You won’t have to take from them because you have value for yourself.”