Opening eyes, minds

Youths see a world beyond Baltimore

July 06, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

New Haven, Conn. - The boys from Baltimore sprawled on leather chairs and sofas in the dark-paneled sitting room of a castle-like residential college at Yale University. It was the kind of place where scholars from earlier decades might have relaxed with cigars as they dissected the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

This lesson was just as heady. These 47 children and teenagers, many from tough sections of Baltimore where life can seem fleeting and hopeless, made the 270-mile journey here last weekend to learn about another kind of future.

"They say a black person is only as far as he goes," said Jovon Howard, 16. "I want to get into different surroundings."

Over the course of last weekend, Jovon would find himself on the very stage once dominated by Samuel L. Jackson and Charles S. Dutton, the Yale Repertory Theater. He'd tackle a range of activities, from touring a helicopter factory to finding out what it takes to get accepted to Yale. He'd lounge in a hotel swimming pool and ride a tour bus through New Haven's historic neighborhoods.

The trip to Connecticut was part of a program called "Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood," an effort to expose young Baltimore-area men to male role models and new experiences while helping them connect with their peers. Although it has been around for 12 years and served more than 8,000 boys, it exists solely because its organizer, Cameron Miles, is willing to beg for donations and go into his own pocket to help finance excursions.

He also seems to know all the right people. At the group's monthly meetings at Coppin State University, Miles presents a parade of important guests: Judge Robert M. Bell, chief of the Maryland Court of Appeals; television reporter Barry Simms; Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Miles bumped into city Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III at a restaurant a few months ago and invited him to the April meeting.

"Frankly, I was blown away," Bealefeld said, "not just by his commitment, but by the manner in which he engaged the young men and by the substance of his message."

From all over

The boys, ages 7 to 17, are from across Baltimore. A few come from nearby counties. Some are referred by juvenile judges or police officers. A half-dozen live in residential foster care. Most come to the program through word of mouth. Risa Gill, a single parent of an 11-year-old boy, heard Miles on the radio and then saw him speak at Morgan State University. "I wanted my son to be around male mentors," she said.

Jovon and his brother Jordan, 14, who live in Murphy Homes, joined about two years ago, at their father's request; he died in September.

The Howard brothers were among the most energetic last Friday morning, as the boys waited for their bus to pull into Coppin's parking lot. They stood in the hot summer sun amid their backpacks and gym bags, cracking jokes as Kip Hall, one of the mentors, asked whether they'd remembered to bring the important stuff: deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush.

And, added mentor Dan Dorazio, "a good attitude."

The six adults on the trip warned the boys that they'd deploy push-ups to keep them in line.

A few minutes before the bus arrived, Lt. Col. Rick Hite, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's youth services division, stopped by for a pep talk.

"Boys, you've got to come back and represent," Hite said.

"Don't take this for granted. A lot of people never leave the east side or the west side. A lot of people never know what it feels like to sleep on clean, good linens in a hotel."

In Connecticut

They arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in Shelton, Conn., Friday evening and scarfed down foot-long Subway sandwiches.

They changed into their swim trunks and headed to the indoor pool - the highlight of overnight trips for any teen-ager.

Lights-out was to be 11 p.m., but at 1 a.m. the adults were still ordering push-ups for curfew violations.

Miles addressed the late-night ruckus over Saturday's breakfast, reminding them, "We need to be respectful of other people at all times." He led them in their group chant. "I am somebody. I am a King. I have self-worth. ... Failure is not an option."

That same phrase is printed on the back of the black T-shirts they slipped on after breakfast for the day's events.

First stop: The Sikorsky helicopter factory in nearby Stratford, a site selected by Miles after his return late last year from a 17-month Iraq deployment in the National Guard's aviation unit.

At the factory, war veterans walked them through the assembly line for the famous Blackhawk helicopter.

A guide mentioned that starting pay for workers is about $18 to $20 per hour.

"That's honest money," Hall reminded the youths. "That's not standing around on the street."

Afterward, they assembled in front of the building for a group photo: "Short brothers in the front, taller brothers in the back," Miles called out.

Then it was back on the bus, Yale-bound.

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