Bill Milliken

How tough love saved a life.

Founder of Communities in Schools, Bill Milliken talks about his early years as a youth outreach worker in the streets of New York City in the 1960s. Trying to establish a group home for troubled youth required both resolve and compassion:

Sometimes 215 Madison felt like Grand Central Station. People were constantly coming around to talk, hang out, and be safe. Dean felt that we were a kind of extended family, a place where an individual could struggle through some of the emotional development he hadn’t been able to do at home. You can bet that rang some bells with me—I knew exactly what that felt like.

Each person had to maintain himself, and that helped build responsibility and self-respect. Everyone was equal; everyone was encouraged to share food and clothing and activities together. St. Christopher’s Chapel invited us over every night for the evening meal, so that was another chance to learn social skills and feel like a part of something.

There were house rules: Attend the daily meeting. No stealing drills, TVs, and refrigerators! Keep your room clean (interpretations of this varied widely). No physical violence.

We had one basic rule that mattered most, and it was a hard one: You have to be honest. The only surefire destroyer of community is lying. We told everyone, “We don’t care what you’ve done in the past or right now, but you have to tell the truth about it.” This was the bedrock of our “tough love” idea, and it cost us many young people. We had to mean it: If you lie, you’re out—no excuses.

One of the worst moments occurred when Manny Perez, a young man we’d been through a lot with, refused to talk to us about whether he was getting high. Manny was one of my favorites, a real leader and very intelligent. But I knew how hard he was struggling with drugs. One night, we came back to 215 Madison from our communal supper at the parish hall and gathered for the house meeting, where everyone could speak his mind and hash out whatever issues were brewing.

I was sure Manny was using smack. When I asked him straight out, he said nothing, just looked at the floor. The other guys told him to level with us, but he just sat there. So we all took a vote and told him, “If you’re willing to get honest with us, you stay. If you won’t, you go.”

It was a horrible decision to have to make, but Dean and I knew that as soon as we allowed anyone to break the honesty rule, there quickly wouldn’t be any rules left at all. This time I had to reverse roles and stay tough. “Mothering” wasn’t going to work.

Manny suddenly exploded, calling me every name in the book. Then he threw his apartment keys at me.

“Okay, where do you want to go?” I asked.

He said that he had an uncle in Brooklyn. It was late and pouring rain, so I said I’d drive him.

As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, Manny suddenly reached over from the passenger seat, yanked up the emergency brake, and shouted, “Let me out here!” He got out and jumped over a low railing. He was on a narrow ledge, three feet from the edge of the bridge.

I felt sick. “Manny, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll jump off this bridge.” He started walking up the ledge and vanished in the darkness.

For three months, no one knew what had happened to him. Then we got word on the street that he was still alive. Soon we heard a little more: The Army had told him that if he could stay clean for one year, he could come back and enlist. It sounded like he had a plan, which he’d never had before in all the time he was living with us.

I never heard from Manny again—until almost 40 years later. After I gave a speech in Newark, New Jersey, I walked out and headed for the train station. There was a guy standing there in the darkness. My survival instincts kicked in, and I was ready to run, but then he called my name. It was Manny.

He told me that he’d seen an article in the paper announcing that I was scheduled to talk, and he came down from Elizabeth, New Jersey, because he wanted to thank me. He said that as much as he appreciated my caring and support during his first years at 215 Madison, we were basically enabling him. It wasn’t until we showed him the tough side of love along with compassion and really held him accountable for his actions that he was able to reach inside himself and decide what he wanted to do.

Bill Milliken has been a tireless advocate for disenfranchised youth and one of the foremost pioneers in the movement to connect schools with community resources to help troubled students graduate and succeed in life. Visit his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/billmilliken.org