Youth group searching for a few good men

July 26, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Mentors wanted. Apply to Youth on the Horizon.

If Johnny Johnson and Melvin Velines-Bey were to take out an ad about the new mentoring program called Youth on the Horizon, that's probably how it would read. Instead, the pair simply invited interested parties to a meeting Saturday at the Moorish Science Temple on Milton Street in East Baltimore. They also contacted the news media and hoped for the best.

The "interested parties" were potential team leaders for mentors. Johnson, who works for the state as a foster care caseworker in Baltimore, had them gather to give them information about the program, requirements for being a mentor and their responsibility as team leaders. Velines-Bey, a member of the Moorish Science Temple who arranged for the group to have the meeting, was on hand to assist Johnson.

"I went around to different places asking if we could meet there, and everybody said they were doing things," Johnson said of his decision to meet at the Moorish Science Temple, a sect that adheres to Islam and was founded in 1913 by Noble Drew Ali. Members of the Moorish Science Temple believe blacks are descended from the Moors and should properly be addressed as Moorish-Americans.

"The Moorish Science Temple just opened their doors for me," Johnson said, adding that mentors will be based in schools and that temple's doctrines will not be part of the Youth on the Horizon program.

Johnson and Velines-Bey have a passion for working with youth. Johnson's started when he was working at Project PLASE (People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment), his job before he went to work for the state. He coached a youth football team. When he visited his son's school, he helped the boy's classmates with their schoolwork and homework.

Velines-Bey has spent the last four years working in a therapy group home for boys. He worked three years as a substitute teacher in Baltimore schools - making him one of the bravest people in America - and was an assistant General Educational Development certificate teacher at Sandtown-Winchester Community Center in West Baltimore.

Both men are from West Baltimore. Velines-Bey, 31, is a 1993 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, where he was in the Junior ROTC program.

Johnson dropped out of Edmondson High School while he was slinging drugs on the street. It took an undercover cop who offered him an uncommon break to get him out of that line of "work."

"If you go back to school, no charges will be brought against you," the officer told Johnson. The officer also told Johnson he had to get out of his West Baltimore neighborhood. After Johnson earned his GED by attending evening and weekend classes at Walbrook High School, the same officer helped him enroll at Baltimore City Community College.

You might say Johnson was a beneficiary of the same mentoring he hopes to give to Baltimore youngsters. Youth on the Horizon will work with pupils in sixth and seventh grades. The goal is to help "at-risk" youth. That term, "at risk," has been bandied about quite a bit. But Johnson was precise in his definition of what the term means.

In a handout distributed to potential team leaders, an "at-risk" youth was defined as one who has a "prior criminal history, a ... prior violent history, a personal or family history of substance abuse, one or both parents incarcerated and is truant or ungovernable."

If you're thinking, "We've heard all that before," you probably have. That definition of "at-risk" youth sounds as if it could be applied to some of the teens with lengthy juvenile records who have been shot dead on Baltimore streets. Or the teens with lengthy juvenile records who have shot others dead on Baltimore streets. On at least two occasions, someone who works in the school system has told me teachers and/or principals can identify such teens as early as the fifth grade.

If they can be identified that early, why can't we save them? I put that question to Johnson and Velines-Bey, and asked whether that was their motivation in recruiting mentors for Youth on the Horizon.

"Partly," each answered, almost simultaneously.

"We're looking at the long term and how we grew up," Velines-Bey said. "We don't want other kids to grow up that way."

Johnson said he's partly motivated by anger. And it doesn't take a teen being shot dead on Baltimore's streets to rile him up. Johnson gets riled up before it reaches that point.

"I get angry when I see kids hooking school and fending for themselves," Johnson said.

Those kids are probably the ones school administrators will refer to Youth on the Horizon. Johnson said he has 15 mentors and three team leaders, but - as you can imagine in a town like Baltimore - more are needed. The truth is, this city could use 200 programs like Youth on the Horizon, and that still might not be enough.

Youth on the Horizon mentors are expected to devote at least 12 hours to the kids, attend one introductory training session (although Johnson said training "will be ongoing") and attend two awards banquets. That seems like little enough time to invest in what could be the long-term benefit of some child's future.

Mentors will be assigned to the schools their kids attend. They are expected to visit those schools every two weeks to check on the academic progress of their pupils. All potential mentors will undergo background checks. Those interested in being mentors for Youth on the Horizon should call Johnson at 443-629-0564.

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