They came home yesterday to their alma mater - Lake Clifton-Eastern High School - to look through old photographs, share stories and exchange addresses and hugs.
Some are in college now. One is a sixth-grade teacher at a Baltimore middle school. Another is a shoe salesman.
All are alumni of the Educational Opportunity Program, an effort launched at Lake Clifton 14 years ago that has helped hundreds of city kids through high school, into college and on to what one of them called the "real world" beyond.
"It's almost overwhelming to see young people grow into adulthood and [become] successful," said Russell Williams, a former teacher at the Northeast Baltimore high school who is EOP's facilitator. "I watched them grow up. I remember when they were little ninth-graders.""[The program] helped me a lot," said Chanda Burton, 24, a 1994 Lake Clifton graduate who earned a degree in business administration from Morgan State University this year and is working at Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor. "It just [helped me] prepare myself for what I was in for."
EOP, modeled after the "I Have a Dream" program that businessman Eugene Lang set up in New York, was founded in 1986 with the goal of increasing the high school graduation and college acceptance rates of students at Baltimore's neighborhood high schools.
The program provides academic support and guidance counseling during high school as well as scholarship money for college. Once every four years, about 60 "at risk" students have been chosen to participate, though the classes are growing as the program expands. More than $1 million has been raised to date, mainly from individuals, businesses and foundations. The program's cost is about $1,300 per student.
Seventy-three percent of EOP ninth-graders have graduated from high school, compared with about 20 percent at the city's neighborhood high schools, said Bob Bonnell, the retired businessman who co-founded the program. Sixty-three percent of those high school graduates were accepted to colleges, compared with about 10 percent citywide.
Of the three dozen alumni at yesterday's reunion, about two-thirds had either graduated from college or were enrolled in college.
Nearly 350 students have participated in EOP since it began, and another 561 are enrolled. It has since expanded to Edmondson/Westside High School and Southside Academy.
Bernice Ford, 28, was part of Lake Clifton's inaugural EOP class. After graduating from high school in 1990, Ford enrolled at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. She dropped out after a month.
"I just got homesick," she said yesterday. "I'd been going to school for so long, I just needed a break."
Ford ended up moving home to Baltimore, and, for the past few years, working through a temporary agency. She realizes that dropping out of college was a mistake, she said, and is ready to go back - either for computer science or business administration.
Yesterday, she got some good news: She still has a balance in her EOP scholarship account. Members of the original EOP class received $5,000 each.
"How would you feel about $4,375?" asked Bonnell, as Ford looked on speechless.
"She used $625," he said. "She used one semester and that's all. That's her money."
Darnell Lewis, an EOP alumnus who graduated in 1998, is a junior at Morgan State University, where he is studying accounting. He remembers how Williams, the EOP facilitator, pushed him to enroll in the high school's Finance Academy - something he resisted at the time.
Only now does he appreciate the nudge he got.
"I thank him for it," the 20-year-old said. "He pushed me to it, but I'm glad he did."
Yesterday, Williams challenged the EOP alumni to serve as mentors to the current crop of EOP students.
"The real goal is to get them to give back to the kids in the program now," he said. "This is your turn to give back. Come back and help us, so we can make it a circle."