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Focusing on the positive

Ex-con aims at lost generation 

Focusing on the positive

Leading one of Durham's most ruthless street gangs in drug dealing, drive-bys and armed robberies got him a 30-year prison sentence when he was barely out of his teens. While in prison, he turned his life around. Now, when Vegas Don speaks, at-risk kids listen.

Otis Lyons, who goes by the street name Vegas Don, now runs Phatnum Entertainment, managing pro boxers and musical entertainers including Lil' Mac and Blaaz. But Lyons/Don is promoting more than entertainment. The promoter says he focuses on keeping kids focused and positive. That philosophy doesn't just apply to the performers he has under contract. Since he got out of prison a decade ago, Lyons has tried to help kids that many have given up on.

The first part of his program was his own realization that he had to change. Though he says he's not a religious person, he believes that God touched him the last year he spent in prison. "I just applied my intelligence in the wrong direction," Lyons says. "Then I think God said, 'Hey, I ain't put you here, I didn't bless you with these visions and all this talent to hate the world.' I think God put his attention on me and I just started seeing the world in just a whole different light."

Lyons put together a program called Campaign4Change. The program is based on the premise that "all people are inherently good, and that some just make bad decisions." Lyons is uncomfortably familiar with that background.

"My program is coming from a kid's point of view who's in the struggle, 'cause I was the one who was in the struggle, raised up with no mother or no father," Lyons says. "I know how they feel. When you're raised up with no father and no mother with no proper guidance and you never was taught right, and all you seen was wrong because drug dealers and pimps was your icons, 'cause those are the people who fed you when you was hungry and those are the people who bought you school clothes, you looked up to those type of guys, you want to be like those type of guys, and you end up growing up to be like those type of guys, not knowing that you're totally going in the wrong direction."

Despite his street credentials, getting the attention of those who need help the most is a daunting task.

"We go to the target markets, which is the group homes, the prisons, the neighborhoods. We go inside where we know the at-risk kids are at, which probably 95 percent don't have fathers in the household, where mostly mothers and fathers are on drugs and in poverty. You go where it's at."

Lyons relies on a hip-hop based presentation to attract kids to his message. "Campaign for Change" is a two-hour presentation featuring a 20-minute film, 30-minute play and a combination of spoken word and musical acts. Lyons will be presenting the play as part of a day-long Youth Summit at the Carolina Theater on Saturday, Sept. 24, in which he hopes to attract at least 600 at-risk youth between the ages of 13 and 16.

Lyons shows them how he had money, drugs and guns, then shows them the newspaper clippings of his trial and 30-year sentence. But perhaps one of the most stirring parts of the production is when Lyons reveals that out of the 10 closest soldiers in his former gang, nine are dead. The only ones still living are Lyons and his brother, because they were the first two sent to the penitentiary.

Lyons uses pictures of him posing with 15 celebrities the kids have grown up with to give them hope that they can turn their own lives around. "A lot of these kids that are high-risk out here acting like they crazy, it's cause they don't have no hope. They don't have no faith. They don't think they can be beside Queen Latifah. They don't think they can be beside Magic Johnson. So I show them that just because I was sentenced to prison for 30 years, a convicted felon and no one thought I could ever amount to anything, and now I'm rubbing hands with the mayor and friends with the chief of police and I'm hanging with the stars," Lyons says. "That enables each of them to say, 'Hey, I don't have to live like a villain, I don't have to be this way.'"

The Triangle Lost Generation Task Force First Annual Youth Summit is Sept. 24 from 8:30 a.m-8 p.m. at the Carolina Theater in Durham. A light breakfast, lunch and dinner will be provided. Workshops for parents and children in the afternoon sessions. Prizes include a computer, Playstation 2 and a $200 shopping spree. Pre-register at www.king-raleigh.org/youthsummitregister.cfm . The event is free.

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