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posted: 2/5/2012 5:00 AM

Bailing an ocean with a thimble

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The worst day of Sugar Bear's 55 years was one of the days -- there have been many of them -- when he got out of prison. In the early 1990s, in a prison where persons whose sentences have ended and are being released, and who see those whose sentences are just beginning, he saw one of his sons coming in.

Generational recidivism is not unusual in Sugar Bear's world of fatherlessness. His son, who was convicted of selling drugs, is still incarcerated because he has not been a model prisoner. He is an apple that did not fall far from the tree.

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Sugar Bear -- few call him Robert Lewis Jackson -- was a precocious lawbreaker. His first arrest -- "for GTA" (grand theft auto), he explains -- involved a 1959 Chevy El Camino. He remembers that it was orange. He pulled off the freeway, into a gas station, and climbed down from the vehicle. The police who apprehended him there were startled. He was almost 5.

Really. LAPD records confirm this. He drove the El Camino by sitting on a large pillow so he could see out the windshield and using a long stick to work the pedals.

Born to an unmarried, mentally ill prostitute, he acquired his interest in driving from his grandfather, who would drive around the block with Sugar Bear in his lap. Not until Sugar Bear was 25 did he learn that his grandfather was his father, too, having had a sexual relationship with Sugar Bear's mother.

Sugar Bear grew up mostly on the streets, episodically drifting into and out of the care, such as it was, of various female relatives. He kept moving on because one relative was beaten to death in an alley, another killed by a shotgun blast, another had Drano poured in her eyes for reasons Sugar Bear does not remember. He supported himself gathering discarded bottles for their deposits, and cadging hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches from sympathetic strangers.

His life in the nation's entertainment capital included the exciting night of Dec. 11, 1964, when he was outside the motel when singer Sam ("You Send Me") Cooke was fatally shot. Sugar Bear was 8.

Although he has never been married, he has five children, and has been shot only once. He says he "did juvenile time" but managed, largely because he was an athlete, to graduate from high school. After that, he was incarcerated five times, for sentences ranging from six months to 11 years. He says he was implicated in "a 187" -- murder of a corrections officer -- but was exonerated. Then his life's gyrations intersected with some benevolent institutions.

In 1965, immediately after the Watts riots that announced to a largely oblivious nation the volatility of some pockets of social regression, a UCLA undergraduate, Keith Phillips, moved into this devastated section of the city of angels. Now 65, Phillips is the reason why World Impact, his creation, is a presence in 13 of America's most troubled cities, such as Newark and East St. Louis. Its focus is on fatherlessness and the social pathologies that flow from it.

This is the preoccupation of Ken Canfield, 58, a Kansas State Ph.D. who, until five years ago, headed the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City. He then moved here to help Pepperdine University develop a Center for the Family, and now labors with World Impact living among the city's most troubled people. Canfield acquainted Sugar Bear with Psalm 68, which speaks of God as "father of the fatherless" who "setteth the solitary in families." For people like Sugar Bear, people with holes in their souls never filled by the love of fathers, Canfield says religion offers the "spiritualization of fatherhood":

"If you don't have the calm self-respect that a father gives, your passions go sideways. For a number of men, their passions become sexualized as they look for comfort and affirmation of their manhood."

On a recent day, Sugar Bear, a burly, cheerful survivor, was wearing a jacket bearing the logo of the Union Rescue Mission. He works there, helping provide services to, among others, a small portion of LA County's 50,000 homeless, 30 percent of whom are under 35. Bailing an ocean with a thimble? Perhaps. Still, Phillips, Canfield and Sugar Bear, this unlikely American trio, exemplify a very American approach to social regeneration: One by one, from the inside out.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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