ChildHoodLost Entertainment Group

Gamal Williams | July 19th, 2021
Steve Gardner & Kaliek Hayes

Steve Gardner & Kaliek Hayes

Steve Gardner was one of the lucky ones growing up in South Philadelphia. At age six, his mother fell ill, yet Steve wasn’t swept up into the foster care system, another Black child endlessly waiting for a rescue that rarely comes. Family members, including the mother of his half-brother, Kaliek Hayes, stepped in and raised him. Kaliek’s mother, Regina, offered a safe environment to a child that wasn’t her own. Again, Steve was lucky.

Though young, the kindness bestowed upon him instilled a protective, nurturing spirit in Steve. “Growing up, I always tried to look out for my younger brothers and siblings. Be that caretaker. I always tried to put myself in their position, whether it was forced upon me or willingly, I always felt it was important to be that rock for my brothers and sisters.”

Kaliek looked up to his big brother. “Steve was always just…” he pauses, trying to gather the words to adequately express his heart, “…he was just that rock. He always looked after me. I remember he would take me with him to his job. I was like 10 and he was 15. It didn’t matter, he always looked out for me.” Steve explains he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t on the streets. So, I kept him with me pretty much everywhere I went.” All of that changed when Steve was 17, Kaliek was 12. A boy from the neighborhood brought a gun to the basketball court they were playing on.

“None of us thought the gun was real, it looked fake,” recalls Kaliek. “We thought it was a starter pistol,” continues Steve. “So, I asked to see the gun, another kid had it, and he fired the gun.”
The bullet struck a dear friend of Steve and Kaliek’s, entering the back of his skull and exiting his cheek. The boys watched in horror as their friend died in front of them. “All I could think was ‘I don’t ever want to be in that position again.’ I don’t own a gun, haven’t touched a gun, and this was over thirty something years ago.” Steve says somberly. “It still affects us to this day, it changed us. We went on different paths; me the straight and narrow; Kaliek a more seedy one.”

For Kaliek, the trauma, and the inability to express how he felt, started a cycle of self-destruction. “He was a good friend of mine, like, he was someone I could just talk to, ya’ know? After that, and everything that happened after, I just didn’t respect anyone. I was a good kid up until then. I went from doing good in school, making sure the house was clean before my mother got home, to carrying a gun and running the streets. Something just snapped for me.”

Kaliek became one of the many children swept up into the trappings of the streets, his childhood lost due to unaddressed trauma. At age 16, his mother put him out when she discovered drugs in their home. By age 18, he was a father of three and in federal prison on drug related charges. Prison is supposed to provide rehabilitation, yet Kaliek found something different; an unexpected mentor presented itself. “I met man in prison. He had a lot of time, but he was so positive. He humbled me, made see things differently. I would write Steve and tell him that when I came home, we needed to do something ‘cause I didn’t want to come back to prison.”

Kaliek began writing, telling not only his experiences, but those of friends and acquaintances, humanizing children that looked and sounded and lived like he did. He presented his collection of writings to Steve, who became inspired and began contributing to the stories. When it was done, the brothers released their literary work, a book titled “ChildHood Lost.”

“We had no way to advertise it though. We took the book to a brother we knew, Bilal Islam. He was writing and directing plays and he loved it,” states Steve. With Bilal’s help, ChildHood Lost the book, became ChildHood Lost the play. “We write plays about kids, for kids, and talk to the real things they go through,” Kaliek states.

According to, the ChildHoodLost Entertainment Group has a simple mission, “to passionately using theater to showcase art with a purpose as both an intervention and preventative tool.” ChildHoodLost takes a different approach to the medium of theater. Violence, promiscuity, substance abuse, trauma, and crime are just some of the topics their 14 plays have addressed since debuting in 2012. The play “LEGACY: A Story of Boys that Moved Men” took a unique approach on Black History, telling the tale of a man that falls asleep only to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X as teenagers. “After the Eulogy” depicts a support group for parents, trying to cope with the loss of their children after gun violence. “The -N- Word” fostered constructive dialogue about racism.

Theater isn’t the only way ChildHoodLost engages with Philadelphia’s youth. Chess Chat, a program where children meet with mentors at the Urban Art Gallery in West Philadelphia (as well as online) to play chess. Chess Chat’s motto? In life, as in chess, forethought wins. “It’s more than just chess. We actually talk with the kids while we play. Talk to them about whatever is on their minds,” Steve proudly explains.

It’s a simple, yet powerful concept, harkening to a saying often used in the Black community; Each one, teach one. Steve and Kaliek have used theater and chess as a vehicle to not only reach and teach children, but to set the example for adults as well. As a January 16th, 2020 ChildHoodLost Foundation Facebook post states “If you want to change our city, start with grabbing up ONE youngin’ and teach them All You Know!” Steve and Kaliek don’t need the lights or the cameras. They have taken action!

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