"To say, ‘Hey man, I was a part of helping a kid maybe not make a decision where he would be in jail for the rest of his life. That’s gratifying for me. I could take that all day."
-- Jermey Mccray
Jermey McCray was born and raised in Evanston with four brothers, four sisters, two parents, a lot of love, and little money. He’s ridden his high horse, been brought down to earth, overcome obstacles, and experienced tragic loss. He’s confident but humble, he’s quick to praise others, and he loves Evanston and the people who live here--especially the young people he supports as one of the team of outreach workers for the City of Evanston’s Youth and Young Adult Division.
At 28, Jermey, who graduated from Haven Middle School and then Evanston Township High School (ETHS) in 2008, has served as an outreach worker in Kevin Brown's Youth and Young Adult Division for five years, alongside Nathan Norman (now the program’s manager), Stacey Moragne Sr., Lachisa Barton, Deanna Howlett, and Chimere Barton.
He connects with middle schoolers and teens who may not have strong family support, those who do, kids who may be heading down the wrong path, and kids who are on a good course but need guidance to help them navigate hurdles and roadblocks.
Jermey was a basketball star in high school--he played Varsity his freshman year--and for Cloud County Community College in Kansas. He knows that stuff happens and that plans derail--at times through one’s own actions and at times because of events beyond one’s control: in his junior year, he was bounced off the basketball team for constant tardiness and absences from class.
“High school wasn’t the best,” he told me. “I wasn’t the best student. I had a lot of fame at an early age from basketball. I had a lot of detours because I think I wasn’t mature enough or ready to take that fame on. And it kind of got to me. I was a humble kid, but I wasn’t ready for the spotlight.”
Though he got off to a good start in junior college, he left after only a year in 2012 to come back to Evanston when his older brother, just 30 and with whom he was very close, passed away. But it’s his perseverance and his never-sorry-for-himself attitude that seems to get him through tough times. It’s these kinds of qualities he tries to pass along to young people coming up behind him.
I talked with Jermey earlier this week at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center about his life, his work, and his aspirations.
DE: How did you become an outreach worker for the city?
JM: Growing up, my brother James McCray, who passed away, was best friends with Nathan Norman [who is an outreach worker and assistant program coordinator]. They always talked about giving back and helping kids, and they started mentoring at Family Focus Evanston about 20 years ago with help from Djorgy Leroy, who recently passed away. They really wanted to help kids out so that they wouldn't make the same mistakes. So I saw that from an early age, but I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it was helping out, being nice, being kind.
It was just something small, for the kids inside the Family Focus building. Playing basketball with them, eating pizza with them. But it stuck with me. I always wanted to do that too because I looked up to my brother and Nathan.
DE: Tell me about your high school years.
JM: I wasn’t the best student. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t do it. Because I thought I had special privileges and didn’t have to do certain things. I was coming to school, I was there, but I was late, not doing what I was supposed to do, blowing off some of the work, not turning it in. And then, I didn’t really understand the process. I just thought I’d be given something for my basketball, that my talent would overtake some of the things I was lacking.
I think what changed me is that at the beginning of my junior year I was told I couldn’t play basketball. So I was stuck. I had 15 absences and tardies. So even if I had a B or C, I couldn’t play.
DE: And you never realized?
JM: I never realized. And that ties into everything with outreach, being able to share things and resources is so much of my passion because I’ve literally walked these steps. Being a person who didn’t take advantage of what Evanston has to offer.
DE: And were you getting into trouble?
JM: I was a good kid. I I was just on a high horse and needed to be knocked down.
DE: Tell me about your family.
JM: My parents, my mom is Jan Mccray, she works at Whole Foods. My dad, James Dickerson, passed in 2014 from kidney failure. He struggled with drug addiction and things like that, but he was by far one of the greatest people. Even with his trials and tribulations, he was great. I got some of the best parents ever. It’s just amazing how good both my parents have been and how hard they worked, especially my mom, she’s one of the hardest working women I know.
DE: How were they amazing?
JM: Having eight kids and being able to provide for eight kids night in and night out and not worrying about yourself. Being able to say, ‘I’m going to make sure my eight kids eat before I even eat, or my kids get clothing before I get clothing.’ I mean that set the standard high for me.
DE: Knowing your dad struggled with substance abuse, how does it affect you in your life and how you work with kids?
JM: Well, growing up and where I was from, I didn’t think it was normal, but it wasn’t that big of a shock to me. My dad was probably one of the funniest guys around Evanston, everyone knew him. I think later on in my life it put me in a place to be more motivated to help my family. To go hard for my family. To go hard for the Evanston community just because of what I’ve seen and what I experienced at an early age.
DE: Tell me what you do as outreach worker.
JM: Man, this job right here is probably the best job in the world. Being able to give back to a place where I came from, the mistakes I made, and I can help others. Being able to connect kids to resources they may not know about, or they need a little extra guidance, or they may need someone to kind of push them to get a kickstart. It’s just amazing.
My job is dealing with younger crowd, middle school and high school kids. It helps that a lot of these kids have heard stories about my basketball and being in the community. They look at me like someone who’s a role model.
I love to help people, that’s just who I am. I’m a family guy. Me and my brothers and sisters are very close. We probably talk every single day. All of us.
DE: Where did you live growing up?
JM: Jackson and Emerson. In an apartment. Financials wasn’t always the best, but my mom made it work. To be honest, I don’t think I ever had any worries. I was gonna eat, I was gonna have something to wear. Could I get the best things? No. Could I do anything I wanted? No. Could I go anywhere I wanted? No. But the basic things, she made it work for everyone, and I was grateful for that.
My mom spoiled us. We didn’t have much. It’s crazy. How could you be spoiled without much? But we were really spoiled without a lot. She cooked for us. She came back after a long day’s work, and she worked her whole life, she is a very strong woman. She did everything. We’d help, but she wasn’t looking for any help.
DE: So there was a lot of love in your family.
JM: Yeah, definitely a lot of love, but not a lot of finances. We were making it work. If we had to eat McDonalds or Burger King one night, and everyone get a sandwich, that’s what it was. We’d be happy about it. Not mad about it.
[photo: Jermey and family]
DE: How do kids and families connect with you?
JM: I’m familiar with the community. I was born and raised here, so I know a lot of people. I can go to any Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school or the high school. Obviously I’m not too far away from having gone there, so they know who I am and I’m granted access. I went to Haven. The principal, Kathy Robeson, was my science teacher. She allows me to come in there, do my thing. She sends referrals to me. Any time a kid is struggling. She knows the struggles I had as a middle school kid, so she’ll say, ‘Hey, Jermey, I need you to reach out to this kid.' It could be anything, having trouble in the cafeteria, having trouble at home, having trouble with issues with life, we build a connection from there.
At the high school, I’ve seen my freshmen go to seniors and graduate and now I’m starting over again. I’m able to build relationships through the Mayors Summer Youth Employment Program. If you don’t know MSYEP, it’s probably one of the biggest things Evanston does. It helps employ more than 600 kids and gets them jobs 9 to 5 every day, a good paycheck every two weeks. It’s the premier thing in Evanston to get a job.
DE: What role do you play in that?
JM: So I am the supervisor for the Community Maintenance Team, which is also known as the Green Team. THe CMT is one of the most significant programs the city offers where the kids like to work. The city picks 30 kids through the job fair assigned to CMT. We have three supervisors and for nine weeks we go through the community and clean up. We paing poles, we clean up parks, we clean up alleys, we go in business districts like Church and Dodge, Dempster, Howard area, Oakton area, Central Street areas, and we clean up the neighborhood. We pick up trash. We ‘re out there in and our lime green and orange shirts with vests making the community look better.
DE: So people aspire to be on that team?
JM: Every year at the job fair we get 2 or 300 kids applying for this position. We can only pick 30. It’s a hard decision. So I take myself out of the process and have the others pick the kids. I want everyone to get a chance to experience this great feeling.
DE: How did you get involved in the Youth and Young Adult Divison?
JM: So I graduated from ETHS. I ended up taking a scholarship to a junior college because of my grade situation. I ended up doing great my senior year of high school. I bounced back junior year, did everything I was supposed to do. I think I got the motivation from not being able to play my junior year. I was supposed to be the man, the best player on the team, and the team did good without me. And I was like, 'Wait, they did good without me?' I wasn’t expecting that. I thought everyone was waiting for me, Jermey McCray, the big time player. And I’m like, 'Wow.' And I was like, 'No, I know what I gotta to do.' And I just went and locked in.
DE: And were your parents ever on you …
JM: They were very supportive of me. I was also the baby, so as much grief as I should have got, I probably didn’t get. They always thought, Jeremy always finds a way to get it done, so he’ll get it done. My parents believed in me. It’s amazing how much my mom loves her children.
It ended up being a successful senior year, my team went downstate, lost in the semi-final games to go to the state championship games. We lost on a half-court shot, on a buzzer-beater in 2008. It was just an amazing experience.
After being gone a whole year, I didn’t know how I’d be accepted back on the team, what role I was gonna play, what part I was gonna play, and just having to get back in the groove of everything. But being the type of kid I was, I knew that I could find a way, but I didn’t know if others believed it. And it actually ended up working out.
DE: So what did you do after you graduated?
JM: By the great God I got a scholarship to go and play for Cloud County Community College in Kansas. I went there for a year. Talk about culture shock. Oh my God. I was in a town that held probably 5,000 people. There was a gas station and two restaurants and a Walmart. Nothing else. The town wasn’t diverse at all. Just not being in Evastnon walking around, dribbling a ball, going to a corner store.
DE: Was there racism?
JM: Yeah. It wasn’t too bad. But it was definitely there. When we went outside of where we were supposed to be, like where the basketball players were supposed to be. I guess some of the Causcasians down there weren’t too fond of athletes and black male basketball players. Nothing too crazy, just body language, and sometimes what they said.
DE: Was it different than Evanston?
JM: Oh yeah, much more blatant. This was the year that Obama became President. It was crazy. I’d say 55 percent of the basketball team was African American. So we were outside clapping and chilling and all of a sudden we see a couple of trucks drive past and shoot in the air and say bad stuff about Obama.
DE: Why Kansas?
JM: I knew i had to get away. I didn’t want to get in any trouble become a statistic, not doing anything, being a good basketball player and coming back and not having anything. So I chose Kansas. Actually a few players from Evanston went to same school.
So I’m doing good, playing basketball, having a great season, it’s tough, you know, I came there out of shape. And college was a different thing. Now I don’t have my mom to do my laundry, now I don’t have my mom to help me to do anything. Now all I have is a phone conversation with my family that’s miles and miles and miles away. Now I have to become a man.
So I went there for one year, everything is great, I’m do well. But I’m finding out--they probably trying to keep things from me--my brother’s being sick--they don’t want to bother me.
So I finished one year there, then went into second semester and got bad news. I got a call that my brother wasn’t doing good. My brother was one of the closest people to me, so I came back home. They told us to start preparing ourselves for his death, but you can’t really prepare for that. Specially some who was your role model, who you cherished. He was the guy who helped me through everything.
DE: So what did you do?
JM: I stayed around, worked out, had a job at an Export [fitness center]., Then Nathan told me he was doing this mentoring thing like he and my brother had been doing at Family Focus. And then Maurice [Nathan’s brother, now manager of Gibbs-Morrison] told me he was going to apply for an outreach position. I was like, ‘Outreach, what’s that?’ And he told me it was mentoring, and I was like man, that’s dope.
I had no work experience, I barely had a resume. I was just so basketball focused. I met Kevin Brown and I thought it was amazing. It was something I always wanted to do. Kevin blessed me to be on the outreach team in a part-time position to figure out how I was going to do it. I knew I had it in me, I just didn’t know how to do it.
I just can’t praise Kevin Brown enough. How great a person he is and the opportunity he gave me and that Nathan gave me. My passion for this is just unbearable. I just love it so much.
DE: So what do you love about it?
JM: I love every single thing about it. Just being able to connect with kids. Being able to actually give back and give knowledge. It’s so amazing to me because a lot of these kids are going through things I went through. I didn’t have the best life, I didn’t come from great things. But at the end of the day, from the trials and tribulations I went through in high school, I can help some of these kids find a passion and find a way, because I found my passion. My passion is to help the Evanston community, you know. I love the Evanston community and I love helping people.
DE: Ultimately, what do you want to do?
JM: I have a lot more to go. I’m young. I’m gonna start back at school in the fall. I’ve been meaning to do this, kicking myself to go back to school. So I finally took the steps this year and I’m proud to say I got enrolled at Oakton and I’m going to get my degree. I’m indecisive, but thinking about Recreation. I’d love to be a building manager, to direct things, to help the community. I can see myself being a director in the City of Evanston. I would love to do that. I would love to give that energy back. Because I’m from here.
DE: One of the things you got growing up was a strong home life, that makes a huge difference. When you’re working with kids, do you find a lot of them struggling with their home life?
JM: Oh yeah, definitely. There are a lot of kids who just don’t have any structure because of no father or no mom, or just not having the guidance and information they need to be told. Sometimes kids just need to be told the right thing, actual facts, and put it in a way they can understand.
It doesn’t have to be harsh, but we have to get the point across in a way they can accept it, and take it the right way, and understand that it’s constructive criticism. I meet them at their level. I try to figure out, how can I talk to them without deterring them or scaring them or them not wanting to talk to me, or it being in one ear out the other. Everyone won’t respond the same, have the same feelings toward tings. You have to find what will reach that person. It’s like finding ways to navigate to connect with a person.
DE: So you help fill the gap for kids who don’t have structure or a homelife where they can get info from a parent.
JM: Yeah, I’m a bridge. I’m a connector. That’s our team. We’re all great with that. I think that’s why Kevin hired us. But we’re also good with kids who do have structure at home. It’s not just one thing. I had a meeting with a kid last week where we sat down with mom and dad. A good kid. We had a meeting about him working.
He just wanted to do what he wanted to do and he felt his parents were putting too much pressure on him. And I’m thinking in my head for an hour that I wasn’t getting through to him, and I said, ‘Hey mom and dad, with all due respect, can you give him and me a second?'
We walked away and went to talk. He broke down to me and said, ‘My parents expect too much of me. I want to just be a kid, I want to do things on my own, I want to go out and get a job on my own.’
I told him, ‘Believe in yourself, talk to your parents, let them know you want to start doing things on your own and that you’re able to do things on their own. Also SHOW them, don’t just tell them. Be the person you’re trying to be. Cos you’re trying to be the person without showing any activity.’
DE: So how did that end up?
JM: We talked for about 20 minutes, and we set up a plan for the next five months: to figure out a way to get him employed, to save money to buy a car, to get a driver’s license. He’s a 17-year-old kid, he’s trying to find his way. So I’m helping him navigate through that. That’s the type of thing we do on a day-to-day basis. How we connect sometimes with people with parents involved.
But there’s no typical day in outreach. You never know what you’re gonna get. There’s just always different things going on. You’re just coming to work every day and you can potentially change somebody’s life every single day. It’s not too many people that can do that. When you come to a job and help someone take the next step in life. That’s my passion.
DE: How much do you think what you do helps keep kids safe and not fall into street life or violence?
JM: I think it helps a lot. We’re helping some of these kids to give them alternative resources so that they don’t have to pick up a gun or don’t have to do things they’re not supposed to be doing. Can I say we can just say, ‘Hey, stop, put down that gun?’ Nah. it doesn’t work that way.
We build relationships with kids, we make them think about doing things. If we can get through to some of the kids and stop them from doing those things--that’s a plus for us. We’re not going to stop everything, but we’re able to connect with the whole of Evanston in a way not everyone can. We are a dynamic group, we have the tools, we all have been through a lot. It relies on getting to kids early to help them detour from even thinking about a gun.
DE: What do you think makes a kid pick up a gun, and if we could do one thing to stop that from happening what would it be?
JM: I would stay there’s a lot of the culture right now, the music culture the drugs. And a lot of things in Evanston has to do with past history. What happened to your family, what happened to your friends, what happened to you.
DE: Like ongoing feuds?
JM: Yes. It’s kind of like you’re branded into some of things that are going on, so you feel you have the right to do it. You know someone did something to your cousin, or to your brother, or to your family, you know, it’s like now I’m in it.
We have to figure out a way to stop illegal guns from getting into this community. That’s a task. That’s big because it’s very easy for kids and youth to get guns. We got people selling guns to kids and being able to access guns in any type of way. And it hurts our community. It hurts all around. It hurts a lot. Being able to so freely be able to get a gun.
DE: What’s next for you?
JM: Nathan’s the one who told me I need to go back to school. And I’m ready for that next challenge.
Now, I can help out on a level that I love, but what about when I’m able to help out on changing things, making things work, and making things really benefit our kids? Like something above. I might want to be an alderman. I mean that’s change right there. I would love that. I know my calling card right now is helping kids, but who’s to say 10 years from now I won’t want to be an alderman, help the fifth ward out.
And I think I’m ready to start going down that path. So that’s why I’m going to do what I have to do get my degree graduate and go from there.
DE: Can you stil be an outreach worker and go to school?
JM: Yeah, i’ll be on a part-time basis. It’ll take me longer. I’ll take classes at night.
DE: With your kids, what are your dreams for them?
JM: I want to be able to, if they’re willing and able, to send them to college. I’m not the parent who’s going to be stuck on college because college is not for everyone. I want them to be successful, I want them to grow up in Evanston, I want them to be dribbling a basketball around Evanston, doing cheerleading. I want them to impact Evanston in the way I am, helping out.
Whatever their calling card is, I want to be able to say my kids are okay. I want to be able to give them opportunities. I want to give them options. Because a lot of these kids growing up don’t know they have options till it’s too late. So being able to tell my kids, you can do anything you want, and here’s how you navigate through it. I’m a big believer in God, so I believe that things will take care of themselves if you do the right thing.
DE: Do you know for a fact that you’ve interrupted potential violence?
JM: Oh yeah. Yeah, man. Two years ago there was so much stuff brewing and steaming in Evanston and the outreach team was able to navigate it. We had private meetings, secret meetings, with some of the top gang-banging kids in Evanston. We brought them together in one space, ordered food, sat down and ate, and talked to these kids. We stopped these kids from picking up guns and resorting to things that could take someone’s life and end up going to a funeral. We did that. That’s facts. We’ve had about three groups like that, serious groups, where kids hated each other, where they were physically trying to hurt each other.
We were able to bring them together, sit down and talk, no tensions and nothing happened after any of these meetings. Today some of these kids are close to each other--kids that used to hate each other.
DE: How does that make you feel?
JM: Oh man, it’s just amazing. It just shows you the dynamic of our group and how gratifying this work is. You can be gratified you got someone a job and gratified that you saved someone’s life, for real. To say, ‘Hey man, I was a part of helping a kid maybe not make a decision where he would be in jail for the rest of his life. That’s gratifying for me. I could take that all day.