KANSAS CITY — An electrical generator rattled the air along with the pound of hammers, while Bob Jones stood behind a small, gray house on Kansas City's stricken East Side.
The 4400 block of Myrtle Avenue isn't as pocked by poverty as others nearby. Most homes appear occupied. And this home may have its windows and doors boarded shut, but the plan is to soon renew it, thanks to a new Jackson County program called Constructing Futures.
Jones is a tall man in a leather coat and a distinctive white KC Royals cap. He talks with his hands, long arms whirling with expression as he explains his vision for his program, dubbed Gentlemen of the Roundtable. He co-founded the group about two years ago, its first meetings held in his moving company's warehouse in Kansas City.
"The things we've been preaching are finally starting to come to light," Jones said.
In the beginning, Jones and Gentlemen of the Roundtable co-founder Gary Maltbia tried to teach young men a host of new skills — everything from construction to how to control their anger. The hope was to turn them from a life of crime to a life that might benefit the troubled urban core. To give them new options and to save a few lives, maybe, one at a time.
Now, thanks to a $75,000 grant from Jackson County, Jones can actually put some of the young men he's been trying to help to work, rehabbing the home. Earning a living is something Jones has been stressing to these young men, many having served time in prison.
Constructing Futures was born last year, when Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced that another East Side home, a former drug house in the Ivanhoe neighborhood, would be rehabbed into a home for a woman and two children who had been homeless.
In that rehab project, workers were former drug court offenders being supervised by the nonprofit group Connections for Success, which is also involved in this year's project on Myrtle Avenue.
Jones' group will have a half-dozen workers working on the Myrtle home rehab project. Over the next two months, the home, now gutted, will be completely rehabbed for about $61,000.
Jones said some may see the budget as high. The house may be worth just $50,000 when the job is completed. But he says the community should understand that it will receive not just a renovated home, but also newly trained workers. From this job, he hopes to find more support and more jobs for his rescued crews of workers.
"Let's put it like this: Survival is a basic law of nature," Jones said when asked what these men might be doing if they were not part of his program and employed.
"They'd go back to what they know," Jones said.
Jones adds that he learned at a young age from his father — R.L. Jones, who once employed more than 60 workers in the family moving business — that "the average man would rather work than steal." So paying his employees a good wage and giving them some responsibility ensured that his father didn't need to worry much about their honesty, Jones recalled.
But words and trust can only go so far.
Jones said he and Maltbia had been meeting for months with members of the Gentlemen of the Roundtable when he was becoming desperate for more. They had funded the group's activities out of their own pockets. But they needed to do more to keep these men engaged. His students needed money in their pockets.
"I finally said, 'When are we going to do something?' "Jones said. "I don't believe I could continue to help these guys from a boardroom."
Jones said he convinced James D. Tindall, the Jackson County legislator who oversees the county's Homeless Commission, on his concept of putting people recently released from prison to work in the community.
According to Jones, about 3,000 young men a year will return to the community from incarceration, so enticing them to do something useful, rather than something criminal, could have tremendous community benefits. "You can see it in their eyes," Jones said of the men he's helping. "It's working."
Gary Moore is one of them. He started with Gentlemen of the Roundtable after his prison release in August 2008. He had served more than four years on a drug charge, he said.
"When I got out of prison, I didn't have too much of nothing. I was just looking for a job," Moore said.
But he didn't know whom to trust, he acknowledged, and at first he hardly said a word at Jones' meetings. Now he's about to finish work for his GED, working on the Myrtle Avenue construction job, and is being pointed to by Jones as "doing all he can do to try and do better."
"I don't know what I would be doing if not for Gentlemen of the Roundtable," Moore said.