A bumper sticker from the 1964 run of Barry Goldwater shouts its message for the candidate from the water tank of a toilet in a lonely corner of a dusty old building. Like the doomed candidacy of the man running against the legacy of JFK’s assassination and of Camelot, the toilet sits alone, on the second floor of the soon-to-be “empowerment center” of Rupert’s Kids in Shelbyville.
The rehabilitation of the this building is much like that toilet. The structure has sat empty, a block off of Shelbyville’s central circle, and a block south of the city’s limestone town hall building. Unused for two decades, it’s now a bustling center of activity. Rupert Boneham -celebrity from TV’s Survivor, Teen Mentor, and former Libertarian candidate for Governor of Indiana – and his crew move throughout it, changing it, bringing life back into the abandoned, forgotten structure.
The building is now home to Rupert’s Kids, the mentoring program for Teens and Young Adults who have had trouble with the law. Rupert has dreams for the building. His ideas are to build a center where those with a strike or two against them in the legal or social structures can get the help they need to step up, out of their situations. Vocational education workshops, distance learning computer labs, as well as social support meetings – such as room for low-cost health clinic visits, or drug and alcohol support groups can meet – are part of his vision for the dusty, formerly abandoned structure.
Miah, one of our campaign staff from Rupert’s time on the gubernatorial campaign trail of 2014, is one of Rupert’s crew chiefs and mentors to the crop of Shelby County men, some of them fresh out of jail, looking for a steady paycheck, and a way back into society.
Rupert was in the building’s “garage” when I arrived earlier this week. He and Miah, along with six of the “Rupert’s Kids” participants were gathered in the murky light of a single overhead fixture in the section that used to be a two story stable attached to the rear of the building. Industrial style shelving line the back walls, piles of old iron pipes, wooden trim, and old steam radiators that they have scavenged from the renovations lie scattered about the cavernous structure.
“They make you wear stripes now,” one of the participants relates of his recent time in jail.
“The orange jumpsuits got too popular with teens,” Rupert adds.
“What about shoes?” one of the other participants asks the speaker.
“Still tan Crocs” the first participant explains.
Rupert spies me standing in the darkness near the door that leads back to the front of the building, and waves me over. After introductions, he and Miah get the guys working throughout the building. A couple of the guys will be brushing and cleaning the exposed brick of the walls on the first floor, while a couple others head out to help with a bathroom remodel at a small home in Shelbyville. The mentoring program helps young adults as they come out of the correctional facilities and face the challenges of finding employment and housing. Having a felony allows employers and potential landlords to reject their applications right away without consideration.
Rupert’s Kids can give them a steady job, with flexibility to make their probation or court dates, while Rupert teaches work ethic, responsibility, and other soft skills they’ll need once they graduate from his program. One of the major projects he has them working on is rehabilitating the building they’re in, 26 West Broadway, in Shelbyville. The building is slowly being transformed from a run down abandoned building to, hopefully, Rupert’s idea of a Community Empowerment Center.
I follow Miah upstairs to the second floor, where offices and conference rooms will be added. The last time I was here, the plaster ceiling had partially collapsed, and it’s rubble was covered in pigeon guano and soft down. The ceiling is totally gone, as are the interior walls. Bare brick is exposed on the outer walls, and ten foot tall windows slice through the bricks, allowing sunlight to illuminate the dust that our feet stir up.
“We had a hawk up there we had to evict,” Miah tells me.
“He got in the same way the pigeons did,” Rupert adds. “Then he discovered an all he could eat pigeon buffet.”
“After we shoed him out, he sat over across the alley for a couple days,” Miah points at the fire station next door, “he kept trying to get back in and get lunch.”
I looked up at the exposed rafters, and into the attic beyond. I’m glad I wasn’t there the days they were dropping the plaster and removing the pigeon carcasses from the hawk’s buffet.
The exposed wood and brick of the 2nd story tell me that there is plenty more work to be done on the building. Two contractors have arrived to begin installing some of the replacement windows in the 2nd floor. A mason is there as well. He’s been stripping mortar from between the bricks, in preparation for restoring the historical building.
Rupert and Miah, hammers and crow bars in hand, begin to rip out old window casings at the other end of the wide open second floor, back by the Goldwater toilet. The toilet still sits, with the Goldwater campaign sticker proudly displayed on its tank, waiting for the day when the small restroom will be redone. I wonder briefly, will it too be evicted like the hawk? Or, will it be removed, and placed back in the garage area awaiting pickup by a collector of oddities?