In the corner of a building in an industrial complex sit the collected pieces of a rough and rusted 1971 Triumph TR6. The engine is out, doors and panels are off and an inspection of the frame would cause you to cringe. To those who know what they’re looking at, the car is scrap-worthy. But in this unique shop, a hopeless case is exactly the kind of project they like to tackle. This project has a larger purpose. Welcome to AMG—the Automotive Mentoring Group.
For the past 24 years, Alex Levesque and a determined group of mechanically inclined mentors have been working with boys and girls from the tough streets of Chicago. They are confronting the seemingly impossible question, “What in the world can we do about gang violence and crime in our city?”
Their answer? Cars.
“We have the carrot to lead kids off the street and leave the gang life behind,” said Alex, the founder of AMG. “You have to get their attention with something they really want. And as we all know, guys are interested in two things: old cars and young girls, and I’m in the car business.” Alex regularly cruises the streets of Englewood and Wood Lawn in one of his restored, tricked out, big block muscle cars looking for clusters of young people hanging out with nothing to do. With a V8 rumble for an introduction, he will start a conversation: “Hey, if you’ve ever wanted to work on cars like this one, here’s your chance. Let me teach you how to make a living for yourself.” Curious hands reach for his business card. The criminal justice system also refers at-risk youth to him as an alternative to incarceration.
It was Saturday, July 11, 2015, when nearly two dozen members of the Illinois Sports Owners Association (ISOA)—most of whom drove their TR6s—visited AMG’s facility in Bedford Park. It was not lost on any of us that during the previous holiday weekend, 10 people were killed and 55 injured in shootings throughout Chicago.
AMG operates two buildings with nearly 15,000 feet of space. The facility is open seven days a week and serves as a safe haven for young men and women caught up in the grip of gang life, drug trafficking or other criminal activities.
At any given time, the shop may have a dozen or so cars in various stages of restoration. Alex oversees all of the work with help from volunteer or paid mentors who are often active or retired police officers, firefighters, teachers and even retired corporate executives. The mentors, like Alex, are car guys and they supervise and assist approximately 25 mentees.
Alex and Greg Alonzo, the instructor leading the TR6 restoration, walked the ISOA group through the shop and explained how AMG operates. Alex’s charisma and passion for the program were abundantly clear. It’s easy to see how he would make strong bonds with young people. He possesses a powerful mix of heart, discipline, humor and empathy. His character was evident in the way he interacted with the British car club members, too. Alex treated our group of total strangers as if we were longtime friends.
When sharing stories describing his interactions with the toughest of gang members, Alex varied the volume of his voice for effect, as he would with kids on the street, or he’d lightly place his hand on your shoulder while talking—just as he would reach out to anyone in the community. There is a fearlessness within Alex—an attitude that says anything is possible—and this quality influences AMG and all who enter the program.
Initially financed by Alex himself, the Automotive Mentoring Group earned non-profit status in 2007 and evolved into a program that has taught more than 300 young men and women how to rebuild not only cars but also their lives. The mentees learn the basics of engine rebuilding, panel straightening, painting, upholstery—not to mention job readiness skills such as punctuality, cooperation and the importance of wise decision-making. The 600-hour curriculum also includes training in vehicle repair (rust and collision) as well as the proper use of many types of automotive tools (manual, electric and pneumatic).
Along with technical training, AMG also assists the mentees in acquiring high school diplomas and enrolling in community colleges, as well as obtaining jobs or apprenticeships in the automotive repair business or other adjacent industries. One third of AMG’s former mentees have pursued undergraduate degrees at Chicago area community colleges or are serving apprenticeships at auto restoration shops. In fact, one former mentee now teaches auto body repair at a local high school.
Saving Lives With Cars
“Almost all of these kids have never worked a day in their life,” Alex said. “If you’ve never had a job, you don’t know what discipline looks like or what success feels like. You don’t know what an employer is looking for. So that’s what we do. We are here to show you how to be on time and do a job.
“We’re not trying to get them all to restore cars for a living. We use the cars as bait, as candy, to get them in. With a classic car in front of them you start to spoon-feed those life skills, you start to spoon-feed them that job readiness and then it sinks in and they come back for more. The things they learn at AMG are transferable to other industries. We’re making inroads with companies in the community who, after our training, will hire these kids.”
The ISOA group spent much of the time examining and evaluating the project TR6, offering suggestions for various ways to solve some of the problems faced in restoring the car. It was much easier to find bad things to say about the car than good. One member said what many were thinking: “Wouldn’t it be easier and less expensive to start with a better car? There are plenty out there that are far better candidates for restoration.” Alex smiled and said, “That’s not what we do here. We love the hard cases. We take on the cars that nobody else wants to touch.”
Looking around the shop, our eyes began to see things in a different light. Although the inventory of projects—which included an early ’50s Riley Cabriolet, an E-Type Jaguar and the TR6—were valuable, it was the need for work and the resulting experience and personal growth that held the most value by far. There are no shortcuts to building character and self-respect.
“Put a car in a young man’s hands and he’s able to learn how to use ratchets and cutting tools and a torch. A transformation happens,” said Alex. “Boys become men. Broken-down cars can make men better fathers, better husbands—to the wives they didn’t realize they needed—and better sons. At some point in our lives we all need a second chance. Here, we take on kids others won’t get involved with. We’re using cars to save lives.
“Everyone gets dark pants and a light blue AMG shirt to work in,” said Alex. “It’s a symbol that they’re in a different environment. Something simple like a uniform makes a guy stand up really straight.” Within the shop there is an understanding, often unspoken: “If a new kid acts up and is threatening or disrespectful to me, the kids that have been around for a while step in and say, ‘You don’t do that here.’ There has never been any kind of violence at AMG, not even a fistfight. This is a safe place.”
The Automotive Mentoring Group offers programs for children, too. On Saturday mornings, elementary school age youth build model cars. Those who wish to continue on are encouraged to learn to repair bicycles before moving into the shop to work on auto restoration. The atmosphere within the shop is very professional—it is most decidedly a workplace—but you will also find signs with messages to inspire, designated areas to sit down and relax, a kitchen and well-furnished restrooms. “If the students are hungry, why would they want to work? If a young man hasn’t showered in a while, he may be embarrassed to participate. That’s why there are lockers with towels, soap and deodorant. If their basic needs aren’t met, how can you expect these kids to stick around or come back for more?”
The students are steered toward taking ownership in their projects. Expectations are set high. And they are held responsible for the use of the tools and equipment. In the same building where there are framed articles written about the accomplishments of AMG students, you’ll find newspaper clippings of the atrocities and crimes committed by gangs. Alex said, “There’s an entire wall of gang reports—shootings, drugs, death. I tell kids, ‘This is you. You just haven’t been caught or killed yet.’”
You Too Can Support AMG
Several of the ISOA club members brought spare parts with them, which they donated to AMG for use on the TR6’s restoration. Others were moved by the good things being accomplished through AMG and donated money. Several of the guys offered to return to assist the mentors and mentees with the TR6.
ISOA has a proud history of supporting good causes. Club volunteers assisted in the Triumph Trans-AmeriCan Charity Drive 2009 by completely restoring a derelict Triumph Stag that ultimately traveled 12,000 miles across North America to raise money and awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder.
ISOA’s time with AMG will not end with this introduction. They plan on spreading the word. Alex said to us, “We hear it all the time, people say, ‘You are the best-kept secret!’ That is not what we want!” And it should not be the case. There should be a dozen organizations like AMG—and that still wouldn’t support all the struggling kids in Chicago who would benefit. To help get the ball rolling, ISOA provided AMG with a complimentary vendor booth at the 2015 Vintage Triumph Register convention, which ISOA hosted this year in Fontana, Wisconsin. This, along with the article you’re now reading, we hope will spread the message about the Automotive Mentoring Group with Triumph enthusiasts nationwide.
The Automotive Mentoring Group cannot survive on its good works alone. The amount of time and capital required to make it what it is—and what it hopes to be—is more than it currently has. If this story has caught your attention, please find out more about AMG. A YouTube search will show you videos and lead you to more stories written about them.
If you would like to support AMG, you can contact Alex at (312) 434-7573.
By Bob Streepy and David Stuursma