Ex-convict brings hope to a north St. Louis neighborhood

Kids are learning the fundamentals of basketball and education.

ST. LOUIS - On an old court in north St. Louis, basketball is not the name of the game.

Kids are learning the fundamentals, but the man who started this league is editing the rule book.

"I grew up in a poor environment, I couldn't read or write past the third grade," recalled Johnel Langerston.

Langerston's journey to this gym was about 2,000 miles. But a million miles from the life he left behind.

An ex-convict, Langerston turned things around when he began a successful marketing and graphics company back in his home state of California.

"My company 'Phat Efx' is known for making hip-hop what it is today. Producing the goods for the Beyonce's, the Mary J's and things like that," he explained.

But four years ago, Langerston was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can compromise organ function. Doctors told him there is no cure.

"And I said, 'Okay, I need to reinvent myself for the last part of my life,'" said Langerston.

Looking for a place to make a difference, he said he Googled the worst place to live, and ended up in St. Louis' College Hill neighborhood.

"Houses burned down, boarded up. I just couldn't imagine. I thought I went into a third world country," he remembered.

So he decided to stay.

He started a neighborhood after-school program called Urban Born.

"He had me at hello," said Dr. April Warren-Grice, an Urban Born volunteer. "His passion. His enthusiasm.  His spirit for youth, for children, for black children was amazing."

Every weeknight, dozens of neighborhood kids come to play basketball but before they take the court, they take a lesson in math or English.

"So now their mindset when they walk through our door is that they have to step of their game academically or they can't come in," explained Langerston.

All of this takes place on the campus of the old St. James United Church of Christ which Langerston bought and restored.

"I grew up here. We moved here in 1947," said Ralph Stalhut.

Stalhut's father used to be the pastor here. St. James' is where he was baptized and where his dad was eulogized. For the entire Stalhut family, with all those memories, it was emotionally devastating to see the neighborhood fall into decay.

But flashbacks have given way to a comeback. Langerston is not only buying the church but the properties around it.

"Seeing it sort of come back to life is just amazing," said Ralph's son Jeff Stalhut.

And the Stalhut's are now helping to raise money for Urban Born.

For the kids, the program is free but some say what's happening here is priceless.

"I'm very involved in education and I think anything you can do to help kids get a better education is a good thing," Ralph Stalhut told us.

"It's kind of like if Bill Gates was to invest in you or me or anybody. I think their level of opportunity and level of success is going to be at a much higher rate," added Warren-Grice.

Johnel Langerston and Urban Born -- turning hoops into a whole new ballgame.

For more on Urban Born, visit them online.

© 2017 KSDK-TV


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