The man who as a teenager was angry at his father, brother and life in general, who fought anyone willing to throw down with him, has taken the reins at Decatur Youth Services.
Brandon Watkins formed what he says was Decatur’s first gang, contributing to then-Mayor Bill Dukes' decision to start Decatur Youth Services in 1994. Dukes created Youth Services because youth gangs were becoming a major issue in the city.
Watkins, completing a turnaround that surprises even him, started his dream job last week as executive director of DYS, the city program aimed at helping at-risk youths and their families deal with the issues of poverty.
“Everything I faced from age 5 to 48 prepared me for this job,” Watkins said. "I was the reason they created DYS."
Watkins, 47, was born in the projects of Northwest Decatur as the second child of a teenage mom. Full of energy, he was often up early and into everything as a young child.
“It was like he started drinking energy drinks at 3 a.m. and didn’t stop until noon,” older brother Karokas Watkins said. “He would get into everything.”
While Brandon was successful in sports and made good grades, he struggled with an absent father and a successful brother.
His mother married when he was 2 and they moved from the projects to a home just behind the Westgate Shopping Center on West Moulton Street.
His stepfather, George Franklin, tried unsuccessfully to make up for the absence of a father Brandon didn’t meet until he was 25.
“I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me,” Brandon said of his father. “That made me rebel against everybody.”
One target of that rebellion was his brother, who set a standard and had a reputation his younger brother found difficult to follow. Karokas was an honor roll student, a successful athlete and a school leader.
“They called me ‘Sack’ and they called him ‘Little Sack,’ and Brandon hated that,” said Karokas, who is three years older than his brother. They also have a younger sister, Ashia Watkins.
“It was the worst thing in the world to me because I knew I could never live up to Karokas and who he was,” Brandon said.
As a senior, Karokas saw his freshman brother begin to turn against everyone. Brandon and his buddies from the neighborhood formed G Phi G, a gang of Austin High students. Their rivals were the Decatur High Pit Bulldogs, he said.
“I was constantly in fights,” Brandon said. “I hurt a lot of people, destroyed a lot of property and was very disrespectful from age 17 until I turned 19.”
'I chose alcohol'
He began staying out late at night, going to clubs and drinking a lot of alcohol. He skipped school often because he couldn’t get up after a night of partying and fighting. He got arrested a few times as a juvenile but never as an adult.
“I never smoked weed or did drugs. I chose alcohol,” Brandon said. “I was drunk just about every day... . I probably was an alcoholic.”
His mother, Johnnie Franklin, said she tried to be a strict mom but her son hid his activities from her.
“I never knew a lot of what Brandon did,” she said.
Brandon managed to stay in school at Austin High even though he was constantly in trouble, mostly for fighting. He quit football but continued playing basketball, and he fell behind in academics.
When graduation time rolled around, Brandon was short on credits, so he had to repeat 12th grade.
“I didn’t quit because of mom. She insisted that I had to graduate,” Brandon said.
The older teens would leave the gang after high school, but Brandon found serious trouble in Athens when he was 19. He said 12 guys jumped him one night and he was stabbed in the back by a knife.
“I was laying in the hospital thinking I was going to bleed to death, and I began to think I need to do something with my life,” he said.
He said one blessing was he met his future wife, 16-year-old Marcie Jefferson, a Tanner High student, not long after the stabbing.
“Most of what he had done was already behind him when we met,” Marcie Watkins said. “He was a perfect gentleman. He treated me like a queen and obviously swept me off my feet.”
But he wasn’t finished fighting with his family. He got into an argument one summer day with his stepdad and his fed-up mother kicked Brandon out of the house. Johnnie Franklin said she told her six sisters not to take him into their homes.
Brandon said he stayed with friends for a week before Marcie convinced him to go home and apologize.
“My mom wouldn’t let me in the house until I apologized to my stepdad,” Brandon said.
George Franklin didn’t get off work until 5 p.m. so Brandon sat on the front porch “in 100-degree weather” for eight hours waiting to apologize.
An engineering major, Karokas had an internship in Tuscaloosa. He asked Brandon to come live with him and suggested he could attend Shelton State Community College while Marcie attended the University of Alabama.
'I believe in you'
But Brandon's troubled days weren't over. The brothers got into one last blowout “because I wouldn’t follow his rules that I couldn’t drink and I had to go to school,” Brandon said.
Karokas said his brother started yelling, cursing and breaking things, so they got into a fight. While they had fought many times, it was the first time Karokas won, they said.
“Brandon liked to punch, so I grabbed him and ended up putting him in a wrestling hold,” Karokas said.
Karokas said he called their mom and told her to come get him.
“As they’re leaving, Brandon was leaning out the window screaming and cussing at me,” Karokas said. “I just kept yelling back, ‘I believe in you.’”
Marcie said she thinks Brandon was in the midst of a life transition that was moving quickly.
“His heart and mind had changed but his attitude was going through a process and that was the last layer to totally changing his life,” she said.
Brandon returned to Tuscaloosa after finally deciding to get on the right path. He and Marcie married while in Tuscaloosa. They now have three grown daughters who are all doing well. He finally met his birth father. They made peace and are now friends.
Brandon said he’s so appreciative that his brother and Marcie never gave up on him.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without them,” he said.
Karokas said he never gave up on his brother because “I saw his heart. If Brandon is on your side, he would risk his life for you.” He often told Brandon he would end up helping at-risk kids, as he is now at DYS.
Marcie said Brandon knew about DYS and often talked about going back to work for the program. She said that’s why he chose to major in social work.
Brandon ended up graduating from Athens State University and went to work for Bruce Jones at DYS in 1998. Dukes chose Jones to start Youth Services to combat a growing gang problem. Jones has been credited, along with the Decatur Police Department and school officials, with ending the rise of the gangs.
Jones said Brandon was young and eager and could relate well with the kids when he began working for DYS, but was still a little immature. He recalls Brandon taking the DYS kids to Point Mallard Aquatics Park one summer day.
“I went to check on them and Brandon was playing basketball at T.C. Almon (a recreation center across the street),” Jones said.
Jones came down hard on Brandon because he was responsible for watching out for the DYS youths and keeping them safe.
“He was really mad,” Brandon said. “I was lucky he didn’t fire me.”
Jones said he likes to give second chances and Brandon never repeated the mistake again.
Brandon stayed with DYS for 17 years and he said he often told Jones he would be the next director when Jones retired. As programs coordinator, he was involved in all of the department’s activities. Marcie also worked with DYS, and they often worked together in helping youths in the community.
However, Brandon said he realized he needed to expand his resumé if he wanted to one day run Youth Services. This led him to work at Morgan County System of Services, followed by Decatur Morgan Hospital's psychiatric facility and then Decatur City Schools, his most recent job, as a counselor in the alternative school program.
Brandon often worked with DYS in his school job and through the counseling company, Solutions 4 Success, he co-owns with his wife, so he knows what he’s facing in his new job.
“DYS has been some part of our lives for the last 20 years,” Marcie said.
Marcie said it was a big day for Brandon when the City Council voted to name him executive director on Aug. 25.
“It was like purpose and destiny called,” Marcie said. “He was so excited about the opportunity and the impact he could have on the community.”
Brandon said some things have changed since Jones retired in January and he is determined to return to the principles established in DYS when Jones founded the program.
Brandon said the DYS budget needs to be changed and refocused on meeting the needs of the youths and their families. He also plans, along with his staff, to get out into the community and into their clients’ homes.
“We need to get back to caring about the community and making sure we’re all about the kids,” Brandon said.
One goal is to make Youth Services more racially inclusive. DYS has historically served mostly Black residents of Northwest Decatur. Brandon said he wants to reach at-risk youths of all colors throughout the city. He is planning to hire a Hispanic employee who can translate, relate to and draw in more Hispanic youths and their families.
“We want to serve kids of all races because poverty doesn’t care if you’re Black, white, Hispanic or whatever color you are,” Brandon said.