The salaries of St. Louis' 5,766 city employees are public and easily searchable online. Though it's easy to get lost staring at the six-figure salaries pulled in by top officials, we wondered...who's at the bottom?
It turned out to be Aaron Morris, a 34-year-old reformed gang member and Program Worker II for the city's health department. He pulls in $24,492 a year, the very lowest among salaried city employees.
"I was in a gang from the age of nine years old to the age of seventeen," Morris begins. "Getting out, I had to face death."
The health department hired Morris in 2006, three years after he enrolled in a gang-abatement program called Youth Empowerment Services; it was there that he caught the eye of Bishop Eddie Stallings, a former gangster himself.
"I came from the street," says Stallings, who now works as a program supervisor with the public safety department. When Morris entered the program, Stallings and his bosses were looking to train a youth outreach specialist, someone possessing social pull with at-risk youth; they wanted to reach kids whose lives were dominated by gang allegiances and turf lines.
Morris stood out. He was in midst of transitioning from that life, leaving the easy money of the game behind. After joining the health department, Morris was made supervisor of his own youth outreach efforts. His old street connections came in handy.
"It was hard trying to believe that I could make it without hustling," Morris recalls. "You really have to believe in hope, and ain't many people teaching you how."
But after three years in the program and keeping his nose clean, Morris arrived for his first day at work with the health department. He remembers the date: October 8, 2006. Over the next four years, Morris says, his programs have reached thousands of kids. He organized community talent shows, gang truces and STD prevention events. But in 2009, the funding for these programs dried up.
"They shut us down," he says.
Continue for how Morris faced death to escape gang life.
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