Robert Mitchener’s journey out of Southeast Raleigh soared under the wings of an NFL Hall of Famer.
Mitchener, 44, who now works as a Wake County sheriff’s deputy, spent a summer years ago with Lem Barney.
Barney is a retired Detroit Lions defensive back turned back-up singer on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and actor on the big screen.
“He took me out of one environment into another environment and made me want more out of life,” Mitchener said, recalling that summer with Barney.
That was when Barney made 17-year-old Mitchener work out and pray every day. He also took him along to TV commercial shoots – and invited him to a background scene, celebrity signings, back-stage chats with the Four Tops, dinner with basketball great Dave Bing and meetings with the NBA’s Isaiah Thomas.
“Trouble was at my front door, but he helped me, and his help turned me around, changed my way of thinking,” Mitchener said of his mentor.
“He introduced me to those people to let me know, ‘These people are no different than you; you just have to work at what you want to be in life.’ ”
Now Mitchener spreads his wings for others through Our Youth Matters, a youth and family mentoring program he founded to reach out and help young people in middle and high school by providing academic support, leadership development and cultural enrichment.
On Saturday, Our Youth Matters will host its 3rd Annual Fishing Event & Cook Out at Shelter #4 at Lake Wheeler Park. The event also kicks off registration for Our Youth Matters fall programming, including its Saturday Academy.
Mitchener isn’t an expert fisherman. But when a neighbor urged him to knock on a door to meet another neighbor, professional angler Dave Wolak answered. Wolak, who now sits on the Our Youth Matters board, will provide fishing instruction alongside N.C. State University’s BassPack and sponsoring corporate and community leaders and volunteers.
“It’s a great survival skill,” said Bo Marshall, a volunteer for the event whose 9-year-old son, Winston, participates in Our Youth Matters.
Fishing also teaches patience, Marshall said.
“It’s about the dedication and patience it takes to cast a line and catch a fish; learning the patience to wait for something and also being able to go get it. It’s a great ideology.”
In its early stages, Our Youth Matters built partnerships with schools. As Mitchener answered invitations to school visits across Wake County, he’d bring with him judges, lawyers and other community notables.
“That’s always good if you want to talk to them one time, but if you want to have a greater impact you need a long-term programming model for them,” said Michael Eure, the program’s vice president for administration.
Even so, Eure said, Our Youth Matters continues partnerships with area schools, including Southeast Raleigh and Wake Forest high schools, with extended offerings of field trips and events to highlight youth successes in everything from band to sports.
“The same thing we’re doing with these young kids is basically the same thing Lem Barney did for me as a young kid,” Mitchener said, noting Barney’s influence came when his own father’s energy was zapped by two full-time jobs. “We, as a community, are always talking about helping, but no one is really doing it.
“But someone helped me, so I’m doing what was done for me,” Mitchener added. “Hands down, Lem Barney is the reason Our Youth Matters started. I owe it to him to make opportunities available to someone else.”