Foster children succumbed to the cruel and unusual punishment of carrying stacks of heavy bricks for several hours in their frail arms, wondering what they had done wrong to deserve such unjust treatment.
This, along with many other forms of abuse and neglect, made up the unimaginably adverse childhood of Alton Carter, an Oklahoma State alumnus and the current youth director at First United Methodist Church of Stillwater.
At a young 8 years old, Carter entered the foster care program, where he was placed into multiple foster homes throughout Oklahoma until settling in an abusive ranch in Perkins, where his brick-filled fate awaited him.
"A lot of my foster parents should not have been foster parents," Carter said.
His childhood included violence, unpaid bills, malnourishment and fear instilled by his abusive guardian at the ranch.
"We just were not being taken care of," Carter said.
Rather than letting his dark memories drag him down, Carter has used them for inspiration setting out to make a difference for today's youth.
"I have always had a passion for this because of my childhood," Carter said. "It is hard to make an impact if you do not believe in yourself."
Empowered through education
Carter became the first person in his entire family to graduate high school, saying that no one had even finished 9th grade before him.
He graduated from Cushing High School with no intentions of attending college, but he soon received his bachelor's degree in sociology. Carter said Martha McMillian, a former OSU staff member, kindly enrolled him without his permission.
"I had tons of helpful people in my life, from a 4th grade teacher who brought me groceries to a woman who enrolled me in school because she wanted me to go so badly," Carter said.
"I just knew at some capacity I wanted to finish school and find a way to make a difference in young kids' lives — rich, poor, neglected, black or white."
Impacting today's youth
Carter used his degree and passion for helping kids to become a youth director, working on almost eight years at FUMC, where he eads 6th-12th grade students.
"I do not like the word ‘job,’" Carter said. "It is literally a lifestyle."
Mike Chaffin, senior pastor at FUMC, said Carter encompasses the lifestyle of a youth director, saying he has a warmth of spirit and enthusiasm for life which draws people to him.
"Because of his life experience, he is able to empathize with youth who are going through the trials and challenges of adolescence," Chaffin said.
Carter and assistant youth director Janelda Lane lead a service-oriented youth group that operates under the slogan "Gaining momentum to change the world."
Carter said they have about 90 kids who participate in their youth group, but he stresses that its success is not based on numbers.
The youth has done a variety of missionary work, including going to Mexico to help build a church, helping host a fundraising rodeo and organizing an annual fundraising dinner for those involved with the Special Olympics.
A few weeks ago, the group showed up to a local low-income apartment complex with chili cheese dogs to feed the families and stayed for hours to play with the other children.
One of the youth's favorite activities is when they are separated into groups, placed in vans and given a mystery assignment to show random acts of kindness. Sometimes they put $25 in an envelope and are assigned to use this money to give back to the community in some way. Carter said they do this activity about twice a year.
Carter's inspiring assignments have led them to bring ice cream to the fire station in support of those who risk their lives everyday, pay for people's carwashes in line to pay it forward and bringing supplies to a homeless shelter to help those in need.
"It is his calling to work with kids," Lane said. "He is a leader at our church, but more than that, he is a leader in the community."
Lane said they receive positive feedback from parents and church members all the time about Carter's impact, making it obvious that his mission to make a difference for kids has grown beyond just an idea and become a blatant reality.
A family man
Carter says people often ask him what motivates him to move beyond his dark past and make a difference in the world. His response always remains the same.
"To be a good father," Carter said, beaming with pride for his family.
He said his mom had five children by four different men, but he acknowledges that there is a blank space on his birth certificate where a father's name should be written. This in itself has driven him to embody the father role that was so absent in his own life.
Carter enjoys fishing with his 2 sons — Kelton, 16 and Colin, 14 — more than anything, and he has a loving wife named Kristin, whom he met at OSU.
"I make tons of mistakes, and in this day and age kids do not want to see perfect people; they want genuine people," Carter said. "They see me broken sometimes when life is not great."
Carter says his children have seen him cry and undergo trying times even as an adult, but he prefers it that way in an effort to stay true to himself rather than hiding behind a positive facade when times are tough.
"They still want to be like me," Carter said. "I am so proud of them."
Telling his story
Looking at this tall African-American with a 6-foot plus-stature and muscular physique, it is clear that Carter is no longer the tortured little boy who bounced from foster home to foster home and faced challenge after challenge.
Carter will share the story of his childhood and the mentality that helped him overcome it in his upcoming novel appropriately titled “The Boy Who Carried Bricks.” Carter will hold his first book signing on Dec. 7 at FUMC.
He started writing this timeline of his life less than a year ago, as he wanted to wait until his mom passed away for personal reasons.
Lane conveniently illustrated the book’s cover, and it portrays a cartoon version of young Alton carrying bricks with a dark, overcast sky hanging over the ranch. The sky no doubt representing the darkness of his unbearable time there.
When he was a child, Carter said he tried to do a lot of things himself rather than asking for help. He now realizes there are people out there willing to help, and he encourages youth in bad situations to reach out to these people.
"Life is so much bigger than what we see," Carter said.
He said the novel is not meant to gain pity or compare it to adversity others have faced, but instead to tell his life story the way he remembers it and give inspiration to youth who may be in a similar situation.
"There are kids still hungry, still abused with so many problems and we just need people to help," Carter said. "This book is aimed at bringing light on the idea that there are still kids out there like me."