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At Shuman Center, service with a smile, and a side of inspiration

Aaron Aupperlee
| Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, 8:54 a.m.
Landis 'Luke' Morris, who works in cafeteria service at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is photographed in the cafeteria on Feb. 16, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Landis 'Luke' Morris, who works in cafeteria service at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is photographed in the cafeteria on Feb. 16, 2017.
Landis 'Luke' Morris, who works in cafeteria service at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is photographed in the cafeteria on Feb. 16, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Landis 'Luke' Morris, who works in cafeteria service at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is photographed in the cafeteria on Feb. 16, 2017.

The kids arrive, a group of eight boys, dressed in identical, dark blue scrubs and wearing flip-flops. They file into the cafeteria in a single line. Most gaze at the floor. Few talk to each other.

Landis "Luke" Morris stands behind the serving counter, "Welcome to Cafe Shuman" is painted on the wall behind him. He's smiling. He's nearly bouncing with excitement as the boys approach.

Lunch that day is hamburgers, with or without cheese, French fries and diced carrots. The carrots are a tough sell.

"You don't want no carrots? Carrots make you see better when you're shooting that basketball," Morris says to one boy who passes on the vegetable.

Morris, an eight-year veteran of the cafeteria, serves more than lunch and dinner to kids housed at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

"They already miserable as it is," Morris says of the kids. "So when they come through the line, you're trying to give them inspiration, you know, give them a little bit of hope at least, so they can feel a little bit better while they in there. They come up, they will feel a little bit better when they see a person who's got a nice face, a person who is not mean to them. I make them feel comfortable."

The Shuman Center in Lincoln-Lemington is a stop for kids waiting for court hearings or to be transferred to another juvenile facility. Morris, 59, lives a couple of miles away in the same neighborhood. Shuman houses about 55 kids at a time and rarely reaches its 120-person capacity. The average stay is about 12 days. Many leave in a few days. Some stay for months.

"So what's going on with you man? You all right?" Morris asks one boy passing through his line.

"Just chilling. Can't wait to get out," the boy mumbles.

"Yeah, how long?"

"I've been here for three months. I should be up in like three more weeks."

"Well, let me know what goes on when you come up."

The boy passes on carrots and has a seat.

Morris wants to try to talk to the boy's case worker or probation officer before he gets out. He does that for the kids he knows the best. If a kid was respectful passing through his line, he tells them. If the kid told Morris about wanting to get a job or do better in school, he tells them.

"These guys, they want to get out," Morris says, "and I believe they can turn their life around."

Morris believes it because he sees a bit of himself in the kids at Shuman. Many come from chaotic homes. There are drugs and violence. Morris grew up in a family that struggled with alcohol. His dad was an alcoholic, Morris says.

"I even started following my dad's footsteps at a point, but I changed," Morris said. "I had to make a change, and the change was great because God put in me a beautiful change. ... I got hope. My inspiration is high, and I'm right where I'm at now. I'm where I want to be."

Morris tells the kids it's important to get a job and take care of themselves and their families. A job, he says, forces the kids to take responsibly and gives them the chance to start their own lives.

"When you got responsibility, you get better," he says. "Your heart and your mind get a lot better because you know what you have to do."

Morris helps kids complete job applications. He has arranged interviews for a few at the Wal-Mart where he used to work.

He keeps in contact with others. He sees them around town. Some call him Uncle Luke. Others Mr. Luke. He once recognized a boy working a cash register at a Dollar General store in Robinson.

"Now that is beautiful," he says. "That is what I like to see."

There is a girl — Morris didn't remember her name — who was pregnant when she came through his line. Morris talked to her, encouraged her to turn her life around, to think about her baby. He found the girl's grandmother, too, and talked to her.

The girl now has an apartment, a job and a car and is raising her baby. Morris knows because he still sees her grandmother to check in.

There is his niece. She was constantly in and out of Shuman. She came from a broken home, Morris says, and had nowhere stable to go. The last time she came through Shuman, she was pregnant.

"I kept on encouraging her, 'You have to do better than what you're doing. How are you going to raise your baby? How you going to raise your child when you're always in juvenile detention,' " Morris says.

His niece is now 19 and raising her daughter in a North Side apartment.

"She's came a long way, and I'm proud of that," Morris says. "I'm proud of all the kids. They don't ask to be in that type of life. A lot times, it just hurts. It just hurts my heart just to see them going through that, but there's nothing I can really do but just to talk to them and, like I say, give them advice and make sure they do the right thing.

"Do the best I can, that's it."

Some don't listen, and Morris accepts that. He remembers Tarod Thornhill, the 19-year-old Penn Hills man who was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison this year for shooting up the Macy's store at Monroeville Mall in 2015, wounding three people. Thornhill bounced in and out of Shuman.

"I was talking to him, and I was talking to him, and lots of people were talking to him, and when he got out, he had a little conflict with his buddy," Morris said. "Now you done gone messed up some innocent people's life."

"There are some that are hardheaded."

Morris doesn't get as much time as he would like with the kids as they pass through his line. When he's done serving and the kids are seated, Morris moves around the room, sitting and talking with them as they eat. The kids sit with their units, usually seven or eight others. Boys and girls sit on opposite sides of the cafeteria, no mingling, Morris says.

"The one on the end, sometimes it's hard to get through to him," Morris says about a boy in the cafeteria he just talked to. "But I always tell him, 'Remember, I'm serving you, and you got to be polite.'"

A colorful mural covers the cafeteria walls. There are paintings of a woman playing a guitar, a girl walking her dog, a couple having a picnic, a mother and her daughter flying a kite, a person riding a bike, a person flying a kite, a woman graduating, a tree house, a neighborhood.

As a unit of girls files into the cafeteria, Morris is ready to greet them.

"Sup ladies," Morris shouts as they approach. No response. "Nobody's talking to me today? ... OK, ladies. We got some carrots."

Sometimes the kids don't feel like talking. But that doesn't stop Morris.

"Sometimes it's hard to get through to these kids, but you got to work hard at it, and if you can get through (to) one or two, you done accomplished a mission," Morris says as the last kids file out of the cafeteria. "As long as you know you got one or two, you done accomplished a mission, and I feel I accomplished my mission."