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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 01:58 am

Spend it like Beckom

He's found a way to give back: helping guys like him

Untitled Document A white cloud envelops Larry Beckom as he sits shirtless, his head bowed, in the sauna of a Springfield fitness club. It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Monday. One of the few quiet moments of his day, he says, are the 10 minutes or so he spends in the steam room. He devotes the time to peaceful reflection and meditation.
“God, thank you for waking me up this morning. I pray that you put smart people around me, and strong people, who are spiritually strong,” he prays. Beckom, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 225 pounds, has just finished his workout routine, which started at 6 a.m. and includes four sets of bench presses, another few sets on two different abdominal machines, and five laps around the indoor track. He’s hardly winded, but his day is only starting.
The rest of Monday will be devoted to taking troubled men to counseling and helping them look for jobs, visiting friends in the hospital, washing cars, and doling out cash. After he gets home, Beckom will stay up late, studying. Beckom and his wife, Kathy Blankenship-Beckom, run the Nu-Focus Foundation, a faith-based not-for-profit organization that owns three transitional homes for men down on their luck. As long as the guys stay out of trouble, attend counseling sessions, and get a job or go to school, they can stay as long as they need to. A former drug user, drug dealer, and convict, Beckom makes sure that his days are hectic. He believes that if he and the Nu-Focus clients keep busy, there’ll be no time left for foolishness. However, his desire to help people avoid the mistakes that he made, along with his distaste for seeking other people’s approval, has earned Beckom a reputation as a troublemaker. Last fall, complaints about Nu-Focus’ providing shelter to sex offenders in Springfield’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood led to the adoption of a new city ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living with 1,000 feet of each another. The controversy forced Beckom to make changes. He’s started attending neighborhood association meetings regularly, volunteers Nu-Focus participants for community-service projects, and is trying to forge better relationships with key local leaders. He says that the incident made him more aware that Springfield is a political beast and prompted him to learn to play the game. He has started attending City Council meetings and sometimes addresses the aldermen during the public-comment portion of the meeting. “I first started going because when that whole incident happened they were trying to say that my primary goal was to bring sex offenders into the community,” he says. “Although I work with very few sex offenders, I’ll work with anybody, including a sex offender. I don’t care if you committed murder, as long as you want to change your life.”

To understand what drives Beckom, you have to realize that he has a lot of ground to make up.
Now 47, he spent much of his adult life in trouble with the law. He served prison sentences at two central-Illinois penitentiaries, both times on drug charges. In 1998 and 1999 he served 14 months in the Taylorville Correctional Center, and in August 2000 he was sentenced to serve time at the Jacksonville Correctional Center, where he stayed until March 2001, when he was released. Beckom, whose father made good money working in a steel mill, says that his family lived a typical middle-class existence on Chicago’s West Side.
“When we moved to our block, it was all white people in the community. A doctor owned the house we lived in, and we always went on vacations every year. “But my dad was very strict. As soon as the streetlights came on, we needed to be in the house. My friends could stay out late; I couldn’t. They could sleep all day on the weekend; I couldn’t.”
Eventually he began ignoring his father’s teachings. “There was a part of me that was attracted to badness,” he recalls. “By the time I was 18 years old, I had my first $100,000 and a taste of the streets.
“So if you got a lot of dough, a lot of money, a lot of drugs, you got a lot of power — but a lot of money and a lot of power in the hands of a fool that’s a teenager is dangerous.”
In Sangamon County, where Beckom moved after getting out of prison in 2001, his rap sheet includes offenses as minor as speeding and operating an uninsured motor vehicle. He’s also been arrested for disorderly conduct and domestic battery.
According to court records, Kathy filed for an order of protection in 2004 but didn’t show up to court, so the order was vacated. Both decline to discuss the matter in detail, except to say that their relationship is fine. His being sent to prison the second time, Beckom says, was God’s way of getting his attention.
“In the program, they call it hitting rock bottom. I wound up in a place called segregation — that’s a jail within a jail. Then I started reading a lot of books, studied the Bible. I realized the only place I could turn to was God.”
While in prison, Beckom was alarmed by the growing number of young people serving time, mostly for drug offenses. “We’re warehousing a lot of drug addicts in prisons,” he says. “Some of the guys I work with, when they get out, they go to church, they try to do the right thing — but it could be discouraging for a man with family, and the only place you can work is McDonald’s. You can bench-press 415 pounds, but they tell you you’re not qualified to be a laborer on a construction site.”

In 2002, the Beckoms incorporated the Nu-Focus Foundation. Larry came up with the name and does much of the legwork. Kathy, who designed the program, manages the foundation’s day-to-day operations, including the finances. “We had done some work with churches, and we decided to do something on our own, something that hasn’t really been done before,” she says. In September 2006 the couple bought Nu-Focus’ first transitional home, on West Lawrence Avenue.
The organization’s mission, according to its literature, is “to provide a living environment that will enhance our residents’ lives as we seek to raise their moral, social and spiritual conscienceness [sic]. We strive to act as a liaison between the problem and fulfillment of self image. It is our quest to meet their needs as we educate self-destructive behavior and refine their lifestyle.”
The statement continues: “We offer a safe housing as you begin your battle against addiction where you will receive support and encouragement from your peers. Our Nu-Focus team consists of qualified staff and volunteers who have lived through many of the same situations that you are about to encounter. We give the newcomer a built-in support network with a sense of fellowship and belonging.”
Nu-Focus receives funds from the Illinois Department of Corrections when it takes in former inmates. Some of the men’s families also help out. Still other men come to Nu-Focus with nothing, but the Beckoms take care of them, too. According to the IDOC contract — which is effective through June 2008 — IDOC pays the foundation $30 per day per ex-offender and $45 per day for a sex offender. Kathy’s name is the only one on the IDOC contract. Though agency spokesman Derek Schnapp says that IDOC is aware of Larry’s criminal history, there’s nothing in the contract that prohibits his involvement with the program.  To date, IDOC has paid $24,645 to Nu-Focus for the 2006 and 2007 fiscal years; Schnapp says that IDOC is cutting back statewide on the amount of money that goes to transitional-housing programs such as Nu-Focus. To make ends meet, then, Beckom washes cars — many, many cars. He estimates that his mobile detailing service, New Innovations, has close to 350 clients.
“My wife says, ‘We need this much money to pay the bills.’ I hit the streets,” Beckom says. “I don’t have a transportation budget. I don’t get paid, [site manager] Al Oregon doesn’t get paid, Kathy doesn’t get paid.”
Beckom often details cars for free or at a discounted rate, offering car washes like most people offer beverages to houseguests, enlisting the guys from Nu-Focus, who receive $8 per hour or work to pay back debts. If Beckom fronts the cash for a couple of rounds of golf, for example, the next day the recipient will help him wash cars. Nu-Focus is looking to hire a grant writer to get some more money, and Beckom would like to have more support of Illinois social-service agencies, the local social-service community, and Springfield’s political establishment. He grows impatient navigating bureaucracies, however. “When I was trying to get my first house — you know, it was a crack house — I hit the streets and started washing cars,” he says.  “I ain’t got time for all that red tape and butt-kissing and waiting on people, and people are sometimes in a crisis.”

Much as a drill sergeant would, Beckom inspects the houses daily. For the most part, the inside of a Nu-Focus house is immaculate. A self-proclaimed neat freak, Beckom wouldn’t have it any other way. All of the beds are made. Noticing that one of the guys has left a video-game controller on his bedroom floor, Beckom makes a mental note to have a talk with the young man later.
The bookshelves are lined with such titles as Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems; books published by Alcoholics Anonymous, including Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions; and the Bible. The refrigerators are fully stocked with sundries, which all house members share. “None of that ‘This is my bologna’ stuff,” Beckom says. The Beckoms own four houses. Their personal residence is on the city’s east side. The other three homes — at 618 and 620 W. Lawrence Ave. and one around the corner at 1011 S. College St. — house 13 Nu-Focus clients. Beckom conducts several surprise visits each day, sometimes in the middle of the night. IDOCofficials also have keys to the properties. Men who live here come from myriad backgrounds. Among the clients are Ryan, a lanky teenager with blond hair who likes to play golf, and Jason, a 32-year-old man who must register as a sex offender with the state and lives in another Nu-Focus house.
Ted, an older house member who is finishing up a master’s degree, explains: “The house is a lot like what you’d find in recovery: You’ll have the bank robber sitting next to the bank president, but everybody’s working toward a common goal.”
After being evicted from his apartment last fall, Ted wound up in the psychiatric ward at St. John’s Hospital.
“Larry and Kathy picked me up from the psych unit at St. John’s and brought me here, you know, with a nickel in my pocket,” he says. Nu-Focus receives referrals from IDOC, from organizations such as the Gateway Foundation (a Chicago-based program for the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse that runs a facility in Springfield on Lake Victoria Road), and by word of mouth.
There are no rigid admission requirements, Beckom says, besides being a man (no women are admitted) and having a desire to turn your life around.
Once in the program, a resident is required to find a job. House meetings are scheduled for Mondays and Fridays but are held whenever they’re needed. There’s also Bible study on Wednesday and Thursday, and the guys are encouraged to go to church on Sunday, regardless of religion.
A basketball hoop sits behind one of the homes on West Lawrence, and Larry takes guys in small groups to the gym. “We just try to keep the guys busy, give them an opportunity they didn’t have, and get them back into the social realm of life,” says site manager Oregon.
Beckom puts it another way: “If you ain’t workin’ on recovery, you workin’ on relapse.”
If a resident does mess up, he has no choice but to leave the program. It happened just last week, as a matter of fact: Larry and several members of one house were forced to pack up the belongings of a housemate who had relapsed. Evicting people is difficult, Beckom says, because he considers Nu-Focus clients members of his family. “They don’t know,” he says, “when I help them, I help me. That’s why I’m not in the penitentiary.
“I don’t want to see them getting shot up like I did — burned, and stabbed, had to have my head stapled back together, getting hit in the head with guns and baseball bats, and all that mess.”

Before Springfield passed its ordinance forbidding the practice, IDOC permitted Nu-Focus to have one sex offender living in each house, which didn’t sit well with neighbors.
During a tense meeting of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association meeting last fall, Beckom clashed with residents. At the time, neighbors were suspicious of Beckom, accusing him and Kathy of getting rich off their contract with IDOC. Beckom says he wants to set the record straight: “We had all that stuff before we started.”
 “Me and Kathy would have more money if she would go to her profession, which she’s be doing for 20 years,” he says. “She could make a hell of a lot more money if she could just work eight hours, and get benefits and a check, than what we do now.”
Kathy has a bachelor’s degree in child, family, and community service from Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Probably, but we would not be nearly as blessed. We’re just giving back,” Kathy says. On any given day, Beckom says, he gives away close to $100 in cash and services. Although he sometimes does this out of generosity, it’s also his way of earning brownie points with people from whom he wants favors. To the dismay of the two young men doing all the work, Beckom charges a woman half-price on what is ordinarily a $185 detailing job on her silver SUV. Outside his home, Beckom offers a free car wash to a local marketing executive, hoping that the guy can score Beckom a few Cardinals baseball tickets. Three days a week he assists John Luther Howell, coach of the Springfield Housing Authority-sponsored youth boxing team, the Springfield Cobras.
In addition to helping Howell purchase equipment and scrape together cash to send the young boxers to competitions, he also provides small cash incentives to the younger boxers, who are required to do 100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups per day, to discipline themselves. The boxer who can do the most push-ups wins two bucks. Beckom promises another young man $25 if he demonstrates in one week that he can do 25 push-ups correctly. On Tuesday, the boy took home the money. Howell is grateful to Beckom: “He hasn’t been here long, but when he showed up he made a big splash.”

A framed “letter of recommendation” from state Rep. Raymond Poe, praising the efforts of Nu-Focus, hangs in the Beckoms’ home office, and Beckom seems to have improved his relationship with the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association and the larger community. The West Lawrence homes no longer have any sex offenders living there, although Beckom won’t speculate about whether that’s the reason for the improved relations.
He also attends neighborhood meetings and routinely volunteers Nu-Focus for various community-improvement projects. Late last year, after the dust-up with area residents, one of Vinegar Hill’s signs was vandalized, and some residents found the timing suspicious. Beckom paid for a new sign. “He’s very helpful,” says Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association president Mario Ingoglia. “He’s a positive person. He seems like he’s really trying to help by mentoring these kids.”
Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney’s sex-offender ordinance, Ingoglia says, seems to have given people in the neighborhood peace of mind. Eric Hansen, pastor of the iWorship Center, where the Beckoms show up each Sunday with a van full of Nu-Focus residents, describes Kathy and Larry as good people with good hearts. “They love the people who can’t help themselves, the people who Jesus hung out with,” Hansen says. Larry says he knows better than anybody that it’s not up to him to judge people. “God got that spot on lock. He holds that position,” he says. “He just told me to love people and, for people who say they want to do the right thing, put them in a position to thrive. “Now, if they’re not doing the right thing, you know what I do, I’ll put you out — but if you’re on something for real, I’ll try to help you. I don’t care who you are — black, white, Hispanic — I work with them all. Criminals, noncriminals, I don’t care.”
He considers himself a work in progress. “God is still working on me,” he says. “I got issues, I’m not a saint, but God knows I love people, and I love helping people, and I think by helping people that’s what keeps me out of trouble.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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