Profile: Majovie Bland

Posted: June 24, 2007

As a teenager, Majovie Bland couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life anywhere near that patch of urban pathos called Mantua.

On the wings of a free college education, with George Weiss as his mentor and Donald Trump as his muse, he was getting out. First stop, the University of Hartford.

Today, at 32, Bland has his bachelor's degree in economics and finance - but no intention of abandoning the old neighborhood.

What changed everything was a bullet.

His mother still lives in West Philly with his younger half-brother, in a first-floor apartment with a ramp to the sidewalk. In January 2003, at age 16, Byron Smith was shot accidentally at a friend's house. A gun found beneath a pillow. Some horseplay. Suddenly, the teenager was on the floor, bleeding and unable to move.

Smith has used a wheelchair for more than four years now; he is paralyzed from the shoulders down and bound to a ventilator. He spends his days watching television and, with a mouth control, navigating the Internet. He is reading up on what could one day be his salvation, stem-cell research.

Since the shooting, caretaking has been Majovie Bland's mission - one that has grown beyond his brother's needs to encompass the ailing neighborhood.

Running through his story is a theme that echoes in the lives of more than a few of his Belmont 112 classmates: there but for the gift of George Weiss.

Although he now lives nearby, in Upper Darby, Bland remains a familiar figure in his former stamping ground. He shakes his head in dismay as he drives near Belmont Elementary, along blocks pockmarked with weedy lots and tumbledown houses. Just like 20 years ago, maybe worse.

Back then, he was a decent but not spectacular student, with a craving for respect and money that easily could have drawn him into the street life. Often at odds with his mother, he was hungry for male role models. But instead of looking for them on the corner, he found them in Weiss, Say Yes coordinator Randall Sims, and the powerful people in their orbit.

Among them was Philadelphia minister and businessman Joe Watkins, who accompanied the class on an eighth-grade field trip to the zoo. Bland remembers the boys kidding Watkins, an African American, about how he spoke and dressed.

"He said he was raised in a rough neighborhood, too, and that when he goes to work, he acts in a certain way," Bland recounted. "He gave us advice - simple things like what to do when going on interviews, like shaving facial hair and sitting up straight. He taught us that we had to adapt to new environments, that adapting was not selling out. It stuck with me. . . .

"I had lunch with him about six months ago and thanked him for that."

What Bland liked about Weiss from the get-go was his wealth. By the time he got to Bartram Human Services High School, his goal was to "make millions of bucks" as a stockbroker, like his benefactor. At the University of Hartford, he majored in economics and finance because Weiss told him that was what Trump had done.

In 1998, after five years of college, Bland graduated. But the high-finance jobs he wanted, he couldn't get. Those he could get, he didn't want.

He ended up going into business with an uncle, selling sports paraphernalia at major events such as the Super Bowl and NASCAR races, traveling the country and making good money.

Meanwhile, trouble was taking over his brother Byron's life.

In the subsequent Say Yes classes that Weiss has sponsored, he has extended his program's help - from counseling to college tuition - to the families of his charges. Byron Smith is a painfully clear example of why he no longer excludes siblings.

Bland tried to mentor his brother himself. He knew the teen was blowing off school, smoking marijuana and dealing drugs. At the end of 2002, just before he left for a business trip to Canada, Bland lectured him, warning him to straighten out.

On Jan. 11, 2003, in a hotel room in Ontario, Bland got the call that Byron had been shot. He raced home, arriving at Children's Hospital to find his brother hooked to a web of tubes - and motionless.

On the spot, Bland made a life-altering decision to devote himself to Byron's care. He stopped working, and learned the intricacies of suctioning lungs and maintaining a ventilator.

"There was no thought behind it," said Bland, who lived off his savings for a year and a half to tend his brother. "I had to do what I had to do."

Today, Smith has a nurse at his side 16 hours a day. He has regained some independence. At Bland's urging, he called the Police Athletic League and occasionally goes out to lecture neighborhood kids about the dangers of falling in with the wrong crowd, getting involved with drugs, playing with guns.

"I figure if I can get to one or two, even if I talk to 100, that's good," Smith said, adding, "They can take it and run with it, or they can leave it. There's nothing I can do about that."

When Bland's savings ran out, he returned to work, but as a "mobility assistance vehicle technician" - an ambulance driver - for the medical transport firm that helped his brother get around.

Far from a comedown, Bland says, his new direction was meant to be. "I love getting up in the morning, love my job," he said. "It's so rewarding helping people."

Bland nurtures a vision in which he is helping the entire neighborhood. Along with some of his Say Yes cohorts, he is soliciting volunteers and donations to start a community development nonprofit that would "make a difference" for Mantua's families.

"Say Yes made a difference," Bland said. "Now it's my duty to go ahead with this."

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