Classes 'laying the foundation'

Black teen boys to learn life skills

The Charlotte ObserverJune 8, 2009 

Susan Woods recognizes it's a bit ironic: She's a black woman with no children spearheading a new summer program that's exclusively for young black boys.

But she sees what everyone else does: sobering statistics on how black boys trail their counterparts in such areas as passing standardized tests, graduating from high school, pursuing college or staying out of jail.

What would happen, Woods thought, if she gathered 15-year-old boys from Mecklenburg and York counties to spend the summer together learning college prep skills, entrepreneurship, etiquette, public speaking and other topics taught solely by black men?

The idea for the "Emerging Leaders Summer Program for Black Males" was born. The free six-week day program runs June 22 through July 31 at The Park South church in Pineville.

"I used to be a high school teacher," said Woods, 43, who works in training and development for IBM and who founded a nonprofit in 2003 to teach computer literacy to adults. "I know it's possible for us to reach them if they have role models and if we let them know we love them."

Leading the sessions are Woods' former and current colleagues, friends, volunteers and members of 100 Black Men of Charlotte. A different pastor will lead a morning Bible class each day.

The idea is to show a range of careers to a generation where some may consider athletics or entertainment their only options. However, the program is open to anyone, from the centered student who already knows what he wants to be when he grows up, to those who may need focus.

Organizers are scrambling for donations to cover the $20,000 cost for the summer to cover field trips, meals and other expenses. So far, $3,000 has been raised, Woods said. Organizers are trying to recruit 500 people to donate $40 each through the Web site

Applicants must be 15 -- no older or younger. Organizers see that as a pivotal age where boys face a range of choices. "When you're that age, you're laying the foundation for how the rest of your life is going to be," said Rev. Kelcy Steele of New Love Chapel AME Zion Church in Clover, S.C., and president of the summer program's advisory board.

An adult instructor interviews boys before they're accepted. As of Friday, 28 of 40 slots remained open. Organizers also created 10 slots for 16-year-olds, who will serve as peer mentors.

One presenter will be Tyrone Jefferson, a computer systems analyst and former musical director for James Brown. He'll share his experiences in the music industry, and play a rap song he wrote called "Pull Your Pants Up" -- a dig at wearing oversized, droopy jeans.

"It seems like we don't have a good mechanism to share information, to pass the baton to younger people," said Jefferson, who has two sons in their mid-20s. "My boys got it, and sometimes they'll call and give me stories about how some of their peers ... just don't get it. I feel obligated to say things whether they hear me or not."

'Free to give back'

When Judy Henley, 33, learned about the program through her son Aaron's middle school counselor, she knew she wanted him to be involved. The single working mom worries about her 15-year-old staying focused on his grades and schoolwork.

"I thought it was everything that a young teenage male would need," said Henley, who also got her 16-year-old son, Joseph, enrolled as a peer mentor.

Steven Myers, who owns a real estate and mortgage brokerage company, will lead lessons on communicating effectively, how credit scores work, and manners. The single dad, 47, raised a daughter who recently graduated from a master's program in psychology.

"I feel like I did a few things right that I might be able to pass on to the youth coming up," Myers said. "Now I'm free to give back."

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