When Earl Matlock meets teenagers in trouble, he doesn’t see Bloods or Crips or juvenile delinquents. He just sees kids.

No matter what they’ve done, no matter how bad their mistakes, he’s not looking back. He’s looking ahead, at their futures. And he’s trying to take them with him.

In part, it’s his job as a facilitator with the PROUD program, which works with Durham teens referred by the courts and the school system, and as a coordinator of Durham Inner-city Gardeners (DIG), which puts teens to work growing and selling crops. But it’s not his job to head to a teenager’s house at 2 a.m. when they’re in a fight with their family, or take them to and from work every day, or sell a teen worker his car for $1.

That’s just Earl.

“He remembers better than most adults what it’s like to be a teenager,” says Mary Kroner, a former coworker at DIG. “It’s really important that they don’t get shamed or ostracized over things that have happened in the past. Earl’s really good about letting them move on from there. At that stage, they’re still growing, they’re a different person a year later. And he’s not afraid to hear the answers to questions that a lot of people aren’t even willing to ask.”

Matlock says he knows why. “I’m a big teddy bear, and some of them have never seen that.” He’s hard to miss–a big, burly man who once played linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. He has a soft voice and carries a big stick–literally; he broke his neck in a car accident and uses a round-handled cane he carved himself.

But the same kind of determination that led him to walk after the accident, when doctors said he never would, is driving him now, and it’s what he is trying to bring out in his students.

“What you have is a group of kids who don’t understand the system,” he says. “The reasons can be as varied as the stars; each child is different. “All you have to do is find a way to say I can help you, be able to say I’ll be there for you. Then you have to be there to do it.”

At PROUD, Matlock teaches about health issues, drug awareness, the juvenile justice system and life skills like how to find a job. One of his favorite techniques is putting kids on the hot seat, a stool at the front of class, and having other teens ask them questions about themselves. It’s a chance to face up honestly to who they are.

“You have to get in. You have to open them up,” he says. “You’ve got a child who’s on the verge of growing up, or who’s on the verge of failing.”

At the DIG program, which is part of South Eastern Efforts Sustaining Developable Spaces (SEEDS), he sees the children as they really are. They learn horticulture, botany and biology. They’re paid $5.50 an hour, work many afternoons and are up at 6 on Saturday mornings, plowing, digging, sowing, watering and harvesting. They learn self-worth and teamwork.

“We had Folk Nation working with Crips working with Bloods,” Matlock says. “In that spot of the world, they were just kids. They’d run from the same bugs, laugh when the first seeds sprouted, and tease each other when they sold something. They learned. But you had to stay with them to do that.”

Matlock comes from the perfect background for the task. He grew up in the infamous Pruitt-Igo public housing complex in St. Louis before moving to his family’s farm in Illinois. His dad worked at a tannery by day and in the fields at night. “I know how to grow, but I also know the streets,” he says. “That’s where all my people were.”

DIG has fields downtown and in South Durham and sells its crops to restaurants and at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Matlock marvels when he tells the story of one teen who pointed out to a customer: ” ‘Let me tell you. This is all organic. There’s no chemicals on this.’

“That made me proud,” Matlock says. “That makes you realize you didn’t just plant a seed in the garden. You planted a thought in a mind.”

And he remembers the lesson of a habanero pepper, the hottest there is. The garden grows them, and a teen was going to take a bite from one. Matlock warned him not to, and the teen didn’t. That showed trust, Matlock says, a recognition that others have knowledge to be respected.

Jamie De’Angelo, 18, has been with the DIG program for two years. He met Matlock after being suspended from high school and Matlock hired him at DIG.

“He pushed me to come out there every day,” De’Angelo says. “The first day I didn’t really want to go. He said, ‘If I came and picked you up every day, would you do it?’ I said yes. And it went on like that for a year. He was just willing to go that extra mile for me.”

Matlock eventually sold his old GMC Jimmy to De’Angelo for $1. “I didn’t expect him to throw that hand out like that,” the teen says, “and it surprised me. When he did that, it went from being an employer-employee relationship to a father-son relationship.”

Now they’re planning find a Sunday when they can do repairs on the truck together.

De’Angelo was taking a break from working the last Saturday of the Durham Farmers’ Market last week. He and the other DIG workers had gotten up at 6 a.m., gone to the garden and picked snow peas, spinach, beets, salad mix and peppers, and then loaded up the truck.

They were having fun, enjoying their last market day as Matlock and his wife fried catfish platters and sold them from the booth. “It lets you be who you are, real kids,” De’Angelo says.

“Let them be kids,” Matlock says. “Ain’t that neat? And I get to be a kid with them, too.”

To learn more about DIG and SEEDS, go to www.seedsnc.org.