When the Rev. Yusef Franklin observes the young people of Jessamine County, he can spot a few who look and act as he once did. And nothing about that is positive.
At 15 and living in Alabama, Franklin shot himself while playing with a gun and later was stabbed four times at a party.
At 16, he spent six weeks in a juvenile detention facility for driving without a license and leaving the scene of an accident that injured a pedestrian.
He skipped school and used drugs. While high, he set a building on fire and was arrested for arson. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
He spent seven years in prison and was released 11 years ago into his father's custody in Lexington.
Now Franklin is married, a father and an ordained minister serving as associate minister at First Baptist Church in Nicholasville. He also wrote From Prison to the Pulpit, the story of his journey.
But his criminal record forced him to observe from a distance youth who are headed down a similarly destructive path.
"I've tried to get involved in other programs, but they won't let me because of my background," he said. "I'm upfront with them, trying to show that I can make a difference, can have an impact, but they won't let me in the door."
So, Franklin, along with his wife, Annissa, and the Rev. Daniel Lee are starting Out From Bondage Ministries, a non-profit that will mentor, support, train and equip young, at-risk males who need to be encouraged to take a different fork in the road.
Lee, also an associate minister at First Baptist Church, said volunteers will be screened, but "when you have proven that you have learned from your mistakes and are actively doing positive things, that past shouldn't keep you from progressing. We have to get to the point where we trust and believe.
"The door may be cracked, but it is open."
The youth tend to listen more to those who know their world. The three founders think that world sometimes includes alcohol, peer pressure, drugs and poverty that can entrap boys. Out From Bondage Ministries hopes to help youth break free from those traps.
"The reason we started it was to try to stem the tide of violence all around us," Franklin said. "We are trying to reach out to that at-risk population and trying to bring them back into constructive attitudes."
Franklin defines at-risk as "those on the verge of quitting school and are on track to a life of crime."
But in addition to the bad, "We also know that given the right opportunities, the youth can excel," Lee said.
Lee grew up poor in a two-parent family in Florida. And while he has had relatives who were imprisoned, Lee is a licensed clinical social worker and owns two businesses: Human Development Co., an employee-assistance service based in Louisville, and Counseling Associates, which provides treatment for mental health needs and is based in Lexington.
"I have those things to share," Lee said. "We want to be transparent. This is who I am and this is what I've done."
Out From Bondage Ministries will use sports, tutoring and one-on-one mentoring to teach respect for self and others, dedication and commitment, determination, goal-setting, self-awareness, community outreach, the importance of education, and health lifestyles.
The kickoff will be a father-and-son basketball tournament June 16 at East Jessamine High School, starting at 9 a.m. The entry fee is $7.50 per player in three divisions: elementary, middle and high school levels. There will be two sons and two fathers on each team, with games lasting about 10 minutes and winners advancing through the brackets. The deadline for sign-ups is Friday.
Spectators will be admitted free, and refreshments will be available.
"I've had a couple of calls from kids who say they will need a father," Franklin said. "That's the word they used. We will have someone there who will play with them."
The founders don't know how many young people will join Out From Bondage Ministries or exactly what the program will look like.
"We have to develop a relationship," Lee said. "Then we have to find out what it is that they want and what is it they feel they need.
"I've been involved with a lot of different programs, but I think they become too rigid, and that limits the creativity of the child."
It will all start with giving the young people a safe place to go, Annissa Franklin said.
"There aren't that many places for the youth to be," she said, "which is a breeding ground for crime and other activities. We will give them something to do."