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How Lessons From a Frozen Yogurt Stand Help Kids Stay Out of Prison

By Gustavo Solis | November 24, 2014 2:00pm

HARLEM — When Shamah Sharize got out of prison in April, he walked into an Upper West Side frozen yogurt shop and started working.

“I just went in there, picked up a hat and started talking to customers,” Sharize, who was convicted for attempted murder in 2000, said. “When I was done I’d go to the McDonalds on 95th Street that’s open 24 hours, get a coffee and sleep there. Then I’d wake up and go to work.”

Although he never formally applied, the staff liked his customer service skills so much that they hired him. He kept working at the shop, sleeping at the McDonalds, until he saved enough money to get a place in The Bronx. Within a month he was promoted to manager, he said.

“I hate hearing that convicts can’t get work, that they can’t turn their lives around,” he said.

Sharize, 34, has made it his goal to instill that attitude in inmates coming out of prison.

When he is not selling frozen yogurt at 16 Handles in the Upper West Side, he works for an organization called GRAAFICS, which stands for Gang Diversion, Reentry, and Absent Fathers, Intervention Centers to help convicts adapt to life on the outside and teach young men how to be better fathers.

The group was founded in 2003 by Harlem-native Kai Smith, who came up with the idea while serving time in solitary confinement at a Virginia prison on drug charges.

The organization has always struggled to make money — they've received less than $400 in donations in the last 11 years, Smith said.

In 2010, they started helping trouble kids get an education and stay out of prison. 

Now, New York City schools pay the group to come in for as little as three months or as long as a year to help at-risk students learn the curriculum.

“These are kids that the principal and the teacher are scared of,” said Smith. “There are kids that no one wants, even their parents are afraid of them. These are the future convicts.”

He would not say how much the contracts are, but said that they make up most of the organizations income.

Since 2010, GRAAFICS has worked with 400 students in seven schools. About 250 of them passed to the next grade, 100 graduated high school and 15 are in college, Smith said. He said the group has also gotten 25 people to leave their gang and taken 50 guns off the streets.

"It worked well in the school," said Gloria Smith, no relation to Kai, a business manager at Brooklyn Collegiate High School. "The students seemed to enjoy the sessions. There was less conflict, they were in school a lot more. They just really started making an effort."

Now GRAAFICS is in the midst of an ambitious expansion. They opened a headquarters on 2821 Frederick Douglass Blvd. near West 151st Street, just a block away from where Kai Smith grew up.

The move allows them to continue working with kids while focusing more energy into ex-cons and fatherhood programs.

Kai Smith, who got a GED while in prison then earned an BA and an MBA from Metropolitan College of New York as well as a Masters in Public Administration from Rutgers, has recruited a staff of 14 dedicated volunteers.

Many of them, like Sharize, have served time in prison, and had experiences to help others who are going through what they went through.

Once the new location is up and running — Smith is trying to get funding to pay for Internet access — they will host programs for children during the day and for adults at night.

The center will be part truancy center and after school program as well as part reentry, gang diversion and fatherhood program, Smith said.

It’s taken Smith and his volunteers a little over a decade to have a brick and mortar location, but he said they don't plan to stop there.

“GRAAFICS is going to become a charter school for underserved youth,” Smith said. “Eventually we are going to be as big as the YMCA, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, all those guys.”