Credit: Contributed

Imagine having your father murdered during a mugging when you are only 9 years old, then, later, three of your older siblings die from drug usage, and your mother is murdered by her boyfriend while you are away at college? All this was more than imagined for Howard Robertson, the founder of Air Tight Solutions, an anti-violence program.

Robertson was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens, the son of Herman and Rosetta Robertson. He lived behind the drug-infested 40 Projects and experienced all of this tragedy first-hand. Despite all he faced in his youth, Robertson went on to play basketball at Newtown High School, get a basketball scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, get married, graduate college and hold various position in the justice system—from probation officer to captain, assistant deputy warden, deputy warden and, finally, warden of Rikers Island. In total, he worked in the system for more than 20 years, right up until he retired.

As the warden of Rikers Island, where he was in charge of the lives of tens of thousands of prisoners, he began many programs designed to help the men prepare for release from prison and to be successful on the outside. When Robertson retired, he traveled and relaxed for a few years. Five years ago, he decided to take the lessons he had learned in his life and the lessons he saw through his interactions with the inmates, and create a program that would help inform youth about the negative elements in the world and how to stay away from them. That’s when he and his wife, Barbara, decided to begin Air Tight Solutions. “We keep it real with everybody. Basically we cover gangs, drugs, bullying, life behind bars, goal setting and hanging out with the right crowd, which we call association-assimilation,” Robertson said.

Robertson and his wife do presentations at schools and for organizations. “The presentations are for fifth-graders to adults. It’s a slideshow presentation, it takes 45 minutes to an hour, and we time it that way because when we go into the schools, it’s 45 minutes per session. We are willing to go anywhere in the country. We’ve gone to Atlanta, Georgia, to speak to a group of young men in foster care,” he recalled. This presentation set a precedent, according to Robertson.

“I had never shared my personal story until I talked to the young men in foster care. That was three years ago. I’m looking at these guys, and I’m thinking they feel they have an excuse to do the wrong thing because they grew up in foster care. I told my tragic story to have them realize that we all have stories to tell, but we can’t use our stories as an excuse to do the wrong thing. We’ve been to the Bronx, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Southold, Staten Island, Queens, Hempstead, Freeport and Roosevelt. For a workshop, we charge $250 per workshop, $500 per assembly program.”

The presentations that Robertson has done over the years do have lasting effects. He recently shared with AmNews, “We spoke with a group of kids at a basketball camp in Roy Wilkins Park in Queens. One of the students played for Campus Magnet High School. I ran into the kid with his father. One of the topics that we taught was goal-setting. We tell the kids, you have to shoot for the moon. He showed me his arm and he had a tattoo that said, ‘Shoot for the moon.’ This was six months after our presentation, so it showed that what we said stayed with him.

“Another time, we were doing a presentation in Freeport at a community center, and we asked, ‘What do you have to do to make sure you don’t get on Rikers Island?’ This young lady was saying the answers verbatim as we presented them. We asked how she knew. She said she saw our presentation three years before, so it impacted her.”

It is important to Robertson to influence young people for the good. Although he lost his father at the age of 9, one of his older brothers at the age of 12 and his mother at the age of 18, Robertson is quick to acknowledge what kept him going in a positive direction.

“I had some great people in my life—mentors who were probation and parole officers who worked as part-time recreation counselor jobs at the community center in the 40 Projects. Those men were Ben Malcolm, Frank Cupperson and Eddie Graham. Other mentors included Peter Teal, who worked at IS 8—he was a probation officer; Mr. Bright, my teacher in junior high school; and the amazing Howie Evans from the Amsterdam News, who took myself and a group of Newtown High School basketball players, considered the best in New York, to Philadelphia. We played in a tournament against guys from New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia at the Spectrum. We received national exposure.

“Those guys saw something in us when we didn’t see anything in ourselves as young guys growing up. They taught us a quitter never wins and a winner never quits. Excuses are the tools of the weak and incompetent. Always shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars, and that sometimes as young people, you’re not always responsible for getting knocked down, but you’re always responsible for getting back up. So these guys were drilling this stuff into my head at a young age. That kept me positive and focused. I met these men when I was 10 years old. But I also learned from the mistakes of my brothers—Ralph and Herman and my sister Virginia. My two older brothers and my sister all died from AIDS because of drug use.”

In addition to the presentation, Robertson has written a book, “The 411 on Bullying, Gangs, Drugs and Jail.” “The purpose of the book is to give information to the people we are not going to get a chance to stand in front of. What makes this book legitimate is the source of the information. During the course of my career, I conversed with the inmates back and forth. One of the things they wanted to know is how a guy who grew in the hood, hanging out in the 40 Projects everyday, around drug dealers, hustlers—how did this guy become a warden?

“And I wanted to know why so many of my homies ended up in jail or in the count. So Rikers Island became my laboratory. Over 20-plus years, through my conversations with the guys, observations, my personal experiences, we put together our anti-violence program, and we put the same information in the book. When the young people read it, they are going to see that this is real, and I believe it’s going to have a profound effect on anybody who picks it up,” Robertson stated.

In response to the violence we have in our communities, an organization such as Air Tight Solutions offers young people real-life scenarios, explanations and solutions. To book Robertson for a presentation, call 516-749-4600, or visit Like them while visiting Airtight Solutions on Facebook. The organization is based in Westbury, N.Y.