Jeff Cotton isn’t a betting man, but that isn’t stopping him from working with boys and young men growing up in some of Battle Creek's most impoverished areas to help them beat the odds.
In 2014, he founded Big Homies, Inc., an after-school program for children who are at risk of becoming caught up in the same behaviors that sucked Cotton in and landed him in prison for 13 years on an attempted murder charge.
The program is offered at New Level Sports Ministries
as a way to give boys and young men a place to go that’s free of drugs, alcohol, guns, and violence. A place where they can talk out their issues and feelings in a safe environment with business professionals, teachers, and former gang members, such as Cotton.
That is what happens today. But, the initial meeting between Cotton and New Level’s Executive Director Pastor Christopher McCoy was rocky.
“The first time he came in here, it was kind of a combative meeting,” McCoy says. “He had just gotten out of prison. I have certain standards that I just don’t move from. This is a faith-based organization and all of our teachings are Biblically-based. That has been our success.
“Jeff being who he is could not be effective in helping youth until his mind changed. When that happened, I began to see more than just getting kids off the streets.”
McCoy, who has known Cotton for a lot of years, says Cotton doesn’t categorize youth as bad or criminal and says it takes men with different skills, abilities, and talents to communicate with certain types of youth.
“Jeff has that ability because of past history,” McCoy says.
Cotton shares techniques he learned in a program in prison that helped him understand himself.
Cotton was born in Kalamazoo and raised in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood when gang activity was rampant and drugs and violence were commonplace. At that time – the early 1980’s – he says the crack epidemic was hitting new heights along with an increasing number of people on the welfare rolls, and the passage of extreme sentencing laws.
“Every generation of my family on my mother’s side has had someone who was sent to prison,” Cotton says. “My father was murdered when I was 16 and my grandfather also suffered a violent death that same year.”
As the violent behavior of the men in his life escalated, Cotton says he too became increasingly violent as a result of the racism he experienced while living in the Level Park area.
“All of the men in my life left at the same time,” he says. “This was the one thing we all had in common. We didn’t have fathers and our mothers either had drug problems or were working a lot. My mom worked in Kalamazoo and didn’t get home until 11 or 12 at night.”
The house he shared with his mother became a gang headquarters. There was no one around to stop it.
But, there were individuals in the neighborhood who tried to reach out and show Cotton and his fellow gang members that there were people who cared. In an ironic twist one of those people was Bishop Eugene B. McCoy who is the father of Pastor Christopher McCoy, Executive Director of New Level and Senior Pastor for Faith Assembly Christian Fellowship Church.
“We was walking down street with our GBL (Gangster By Law) shirts on and they used to make us come in and buy us pizza and talk to us,” Cotton says. “That was 1989.”
These sporadic interventions weren’t enough to prevent the premature deaths of many of the gang members or the prison sentence Cotton received when he was 18-years-old, shortly after graduating from Battle Creek Central High School in 1993.
“I was sentenced to 12 to 22 years, got out after ten-and-a-half years, and went back on a parole violation from 2006 to 2009,” Cotton says. “I was still gang banging in prison. I was part of the gang culture. I believed in it.”
Mandatory participation in a program while there, set Cotton’s life on a new trajectory. He wrote the program that would become Big Homies while in prison.
“They have an assaultive offenders program in prison and you had to take it for one year or you couldn’t get parole,” he says. “By that time, I had spent seven or eight years in prison. I grew up in there and thought I was all the way good until I took the program.”
That program called for him to open his mind and analyze what had taken place in his life. He also had to write a relapse prevention program that addressed what he would do when he returned home from prison and what he would need to do to come back to prison – that last option had never crossed his mind.
“Nobody teaches young men how to deal with their emotions. Anatomy-wise we receive stimulation from outside of ourselves and it sends a signal to our brain,” Cotton says. “This is how you think your feelings work, you get mad, and eventually, you blow up.”
The doctor who headed up that prison program taught Cotton new techniques that he believed would help him get into the minds of young men. However, he says the youth he deals with would not be nearly as receptive to those techniques were it not for his firsthand knowledge of gangs and his experience with life on the street.
“Kids in the streets really take to him because they see that it’s genuine,” says Samuel Campbell, who grew up with Cotton in Washington Heights and considers him a good friend. "They see someone who’s been through the same things they’ve been through. A lot of times when there are issues in the community that the police can’t solve, he’ll bring the parties together to get everyone on the same page and squash any problems going on.”
Jeff Cotton offers a program at New Level Sports Ministries where young people can talk out their issues.
Campbell who has been on the staff of Lakeside Academy
of six years, the last three as a Program Director, says Cotton has shared his story with the young men at Lakeside, which offers an intensive residential treatment program for youth who have severe drug abuse issues or have been involved in heavy gang activity, among other issues.
Of 124 boys now there, between 30 and 50 are from the state of California where Lakeside has contracts with counties such as Riverside and Los Angeles.
“Most of these kids have burned out of 16 or 17 group homes in California,” Campbell says. “We’ve had several kids who have completed the program and gone back and been killed within one week of being back. These are pretty tough customers.”
Last summer, Campbell brought a group of between 12 and 20 boys from Lakeside to Battle Creek where they met with Cotton in different areas of the city. Among the stops was a funeral home and a visit to the grave sites where Cotton shared stories about 20 people he knew who had been killed. The mother of two of those gunshot victims was there and talked about the night her son was killed.
“It was waterfalls after that. We were all in tears,” Campbell says.
With guidance from Cotton the young men were encouraged to process their thoughts and past emotional trauma. “This is very important for our kids,” Campbell says. “They don’t trust therapists, so this gives them a productive way to get things off their chest. I think Jeff’s biggest asset is that they know that he’s real and that he’s well-respected by people and gangsters in the community.
“The thing that captivates these kids first is his very real story of trials and tribulations and incarceration and then his ability to beat the odds and his ability to relate to what they’re going through.”
Campbell’s experiences as a young man growing up without a father weren’t that far removed. He says his mom did the best she could, but their relationship was tainted because he looked a lot like his father which was difficult for his mother. He spent a lot of time with an older cousin who was a notorious drug dealer and says, “It was like training day every day on the streets” where he had plenty of exposure to guns, drugs, and violent behavior.
Before graduating in 2000 from Battle Creek Central High School, Campbell says he took his own approach to the streets and started doing his own thing. He says he did what he had to to survive and cover the cost of things like a cap and gown for graduation, senior pictures, and prom expenses because his mother didn’t have the means.
But, he also completed a record 17 credits in his senior year of high school so he could graduate on time with his class. The cousin he used to hang out with was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2001. When that happened, Campbell enlisted.
“I went into the military because I thought I would get into trouble for what he was doing,” Campbell says. “When the Twin Towers were coming down, I was on a flight to Louisville, Kentucky.”
He served in Afghanistan and Iraq and then enrolled at Western Michigan University when he returned. There he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership.
Cotton says he realizes that someone younger is always paying attention to everything someone like him does. He has helped to establish similar Big Homies programs in cities such as Chicago, Illinois, Flint, and Saginaw. He also has received support from former gang members who have expressed an interest in wanting to make their communities better and current gang members who have worked with him to prevent gang wars in places like New York City, Flint, and Battle Creek.
“I know some of highest-ranking gang members in gangs in America from my past life as a gang member,” he says. “We go to neighborhoods where they’ve got the worst gang problems and say ‘look at us, we wanted to kill each other at one time and now we’re starting to work together.'”
McCoy says Cotton has established relationships and is engaged with hundreds of youth and families in Battle Creek. “New Level is an organization which moves families and children forward. With his influence, we will have access to more youth,” McCoy says.
Cotton’s outlook is a bit more direct and focused.
“My job is to stop these guys from killing each other. That started off as the primary focus and it still is,” he says. “I want to take that same energy and apply it to the streets and improve these communities that we helped to destroy and help little kids avoid the mistakes we made.
“I made a promise a long time ago to wake up every day and help the little guys that are growing up just like I did without a lot of positive black male role models.”