Green Gene – changing lots and lives

There are two things about Gene Shonce that Sharon Letson of Youngstown CityScape can guarantee when she calls him about a downtown need.

“I always know that when I call, it is going to be ‘No.’ But I know before I get off the phone, he will get to ‘Yes.’ And that next day, it will get done,” she said.

Letson and Shonce are two of the three-person team that, by job and by passion, are downtown Youngstown’s beautification caretakers. The third person is John Lapin of Ohio One Corp. – owners of most office sites on the east side of downtown.

The three of them ensure downtown grass, plants, flowers, pots, shrubs and more look as special as they do. It is Sharon and John out front on the outreach, and the funding, and the coloring, and the corporate partnering.

And Gene? He just goes to work.

Gene is a program supervisor for Community Corrections Association – they of the many buildings and green spaces along Market Street dotted with white signs that tout “The CCA.” Gene’s core task with CCA is to manage 17 lots in and around downtown – some owned by CCA; others contracted to them.

If you’re an observer of downtown, Gene is easy to spot: a red pickup truck with a trailer of lawn gear are affixed to him; he sports slicked-back hair that sits atop a neon green T-shirt and blue jeans.

But what stands out most about Gene is his four-man crew.

They are all law offenders of some degree. Some are serving small time at CCA. Some have finished hard time at another facility and are transitioning back to society after a few months with CCA. When you drive by, they often look the part: Tattooed everywhere, hard-looking, tough stares, etc.

Those guys are his unofficial job ... or maybe his official one.

They’re probably why he’s been on the job 15 more years than the couple of years he suggested when Rick Billak hired him in 2000. Those men, at almost 78 years old, might be why the fiercely loyal Gene is not ready to call it quits.

“I thank these guys every night. And I thank the good Lord every night for these guys,” said Gene – a manager at BFI for 38 years, a former Austintown Township trustee, and now mentor to those who went wrong at some point.

He recalls one event that might best demonstrate his loyalty to the guys.

“Over by city hall one day, this guy came up to the truck and said ‘Get your convicts back to work,’” Gene said.

Gene explained to the guy that they are not convicts; they are clients of CCA and ... The guy cut him off.

“He said to me ‘You heard me. Get the convicts to work.’ I then opened my truck door, and he took off. I was going to get him and explain to him a little better,” Gene said.

Travis Culler, Salem, is one of Gene’s four crew guys now. Gene will have 70 such guys in a year. Travis said what makes Gene special is that he does not judge the men.

“He gets to know you. He doesn’t just judge you for the reasons that you are in here. He gets to know you and gives you the best advice he can give you on life.”

Gene knows the guys did wrong in life. Getting to a point where he can talk to them is a process.

“I’m trying to get guys on the right track – get them away from the bad stuff. I try to turn around the negative tone,” Gene said. “I don’t judge; I don’t ask. When they unload to me about their life and they want my advice, then I get into their life. And I don’t say ‘You should do this.’ I try to say that they should ‘Try this.’”

That’s the side that many people don’t get to see in Gene.

“His first appearance does not match who he is,” said Dave Stillwagon, CCA executive director. “He comes off tough – but he is a softy.

“He wants to see the residents make it. They’re humans like us. At one time, they made a mistake. They’re just trying to right that wrong.”

Stillwagon took over a few years ago from CCA founder Billak, who opened the facility in 1974. It was not a popular launch back then, due to having a halfway house on a main street such as Market. Now, CCA is Market Street. It has removed 45 blighted structures and developed green space on the city’s main road. More than 200 people call CCA home at any one time – cycling in for a few months of programs such as anger management, job skills, substance abuse and more. About 600 people will cycle in on any given year from all over the region and country. All have a destination address in these three counties. A staff of 120 operates in seven buildings with an annual budget of $7.2 million.

“We’re not only working to rehabilitate offenders. We’re also working to reshape the community. The property work started in 1997 just to target areas of blight around our Market Street campus.”

Those two roles merge on the lots around downtown Youngstown and Gene’s crew.

“Not only is Gene seen as a supervisor, he’s seen as helping them, Stillwagon said. “There’s a sense of pride when you can achieve an objective together. He’s able to gain their respect in that way.”

Adam Tyson of Salem is on Gene’s current crew. Inside CCA, guys told him working with Gene is not fun.

“I love being around Gene. People who don’t want to be around him are the ones who don’t want to work.”

Adam said even former guys celebrate Gene. At a stoplight on the day I met them, Adam said a guy pulled up next to their truck:

“Hey Mr. Gene, you remember me?”

Make no mistake, there is work, there are Gene expectations, and both are hard.

Gene’s eyes constantly roll around the site: watching the guys, the work, the public and his watch.

“What did I tell you,” he laughed at me as we talked while the guys worked. “I said 20 minutes we have at the plaza and then we’re out of here.”

And just when you think his mind has settled into satisfaction, he’ll bark: “Get that blower over there and hit that sidewalk.”

And on cue, at about 18 minutes, the men and their mowers and weed whackers made it back to the trailer, and it was on to the next job.

A signature Gene tool people talk about is his whistle. It’s a hee-man, lips-and-tongue whistle; no fingers for this guy. He doesn’t use it a lot. He did for me, but warned that the guys will stop for no reason and be confused.

He whistled; they stopped – one even in the middle of Wood Street; right on cue.

“He’s a man of his word,” said Lapin of Ohio One. “If he says he’s going to do it, he does it even more than what he says he‘ll do.

“He’s extremely loyal to CCA and his guys – stands up for both of them all the time. And he’s proud. He’ll say, ‘Hey – go see the staircase and see what my guys did.’ ”

I asked Lapin what downtown would look like without Gene and his crew.

“Oh boy ...,” he said, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to think about it.

From that hard work comes pride. It’s a lesson as old as time itself. And it’s burned into one Gene Shonce.

“He is a proud man and wants his men to be proud of the work they do,” said Letson. “These are men who are good people who have made wrong decisions. He instills that sense of pride in them; that they can do right. It just goes to the core of who he is.”

I met Gene about a year ago via a project I’m working on with the Boys and Girls Club of Youngstown.

We’re trying to makeover the Market Street area where the Red and White Store once sat. BGCY – which sits right behind that property – is partnered with CCA and a few others to make the project happen.

Gene and Stillwagon came in one day to review the project as the partnership was forming.

Gene – as is Gene – was tough on the idea – right on cue.

The work, and the mess that the area was, and the items we wanted to build there, and the this, and the that. I thought a lot of things of him that day, and “optimist,” “partner” and “cheerleader” were not among them.

The next day, I got a call from the BGCY staff.

They said some man dropped off a drawing and said it was for me.

No name was on the drawing. It was hand-drawn, stick-figure layout of a ballfield, a basketball court, lights and more – the items we sought to build.

The sketch was Gene’s.

Right on cue.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at He blogs, too, on Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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