Saunders: Not highly educated, but highly caring

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 

Kirby Jones came close to going to college. Really close.

How close? “I was close enough to know my roommate’s name,” he told me last week in his office at Williams Grove Baptist Church, where he has been pastor for the past 12 years.

He never met that roommate, though. After Jones had filed all the paperwork to attend N.C. Central University, he said, a U.S. Marine Corps recruiter told him that he and his best friend could enlist on the “buddy” system and he’d be assigned to a job that would help fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a journalist.

Sure, pal. Sign right here. Tee hee.

“A week before graduating from boot camp,” he said, “they called us all in and told us what our assignments would be. I became a tank mechanic.” And that dream of becoming a writer seeped away like used transmission fluid in the sand.

After leaving the Corps, Jones, 49, served as a police officer in Rocky Mount before becoming pastor of the church in Southeast Raleigh.

Deciding to create change

Just because he didn’t get a college degree or the education he wanted doesn’t mean Jones doesn’t recognize the importance of an education. He knows it better than many.

“I can look out this window and see young men walking up and down the street when I know they should be in school,” he said.

Since they didn’t seem inclined to go to school, he pretty much brought the school to them – or at least to their neighborhood. Three years ago he founded The Daniel Center for Math and Science to give low-income, at-risk and disadvantaged children a chance to learn advanced math, science and technology and to do what he didn’t do – go to college. The first students arrived in April 2011.

‘There is no cavalry’

The idea for the school was born of a challenge from his father-in-law to do something and a comment he heard from Geoffrey Canada, an acclaimed educator from New York.

“He was talking to a group of people. It must’ve been around the time his movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ came out,” Jones recounted. “The most important thing he said was ‘There is no cavalry. Nobody’s coming on a white horse who’s going to fix it for you. If it’s going to be fixed, you have to fix it.’ ”

Then, motioning toward the window and what was beyond it, he said, “We’re going to swing at the ball. We’re not going to stand and watch the ball go by.”

Nor, he could’ve added, is he going to just stand and watch another generation of uneducated children in the 27610 ZIP code go by – at least not without swinging. The Daniel Center, named after a passage in the Bible in which some young boys stood before the king, has 31 students between the ages of 5 and 12. They arrive after school is out at 2:30 p.m. and stay for four hours.

“We wanted to address the challenges they face, whether they be academic or otherwise. You can’t do that during a two-week science class in the summer,” he said. Computers were donated by the United Way and a company called Life Tech in RTP sold them digital microscopes “for a small fee.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has helped the nonprofit find grants, but he has provided something equally important, Jones said. Because of a Daniel Center advisory board member’s relationship with Burr, he said, “We had been working on getting him to visit us for about year. Finally we got a call from one of his people saying he would come. I figured he’d spin though, take a few photos, say ‘Great work you’re doing: Sorry I can’t stay longer.’

“That’s not what happened. He spent an hour and a half here. I was absolutely floored. ... He spent a great deal of time in here with the children, a great deal of time listening to me. ... He asked me at the end of it all ‘What would you like from me now?’ I said, ‘Don’t forget about us. Do not forget about the problems in this community, don’t forget about what we’re trying to do.’ ”

He hasn’t. Jones said he has received calls from people in Burr’s office alerting him to potential grants and foundations that could help his fledgling program.

“These children,” Jones said of the young men with sagging pants and oversized T-shirts gliding obliviously past both his church and the educational jewel in their midst, “are not born on a path to failure. They are put on that path. I couldn’t just sit and look out my window and just mourn what I see out there.”

Nor could others. He has student volunteers from St. Augustine’s and N.C. State universities. “N.C. State above them all has really latched on” to the program, he said.

He needs others to latch on, as well. If you want to help, call him at 919-828-6443 or visit the website at

Jones, noting the center’s proximity to “two of the most august of all North Carolina institutions,” said: “Many, many more of the children from Southeast Raleigh, statistically speaking, will end up in Central Prison than in N.C. State University.”

Not if he can help it, they won’t. At various times throughout the hourlong interview, Jones repeatedly told me what he is not.

“I’m not an educator,” he’d say. Or, “I’m not a sociologist.”

He’s right. What he is, though, is way more important than what he isn’t: He’s someone who cares about children who are not his own. That’s something we all can be, whether we’re on a white horse or not.

Saunders: 919-836-2811

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