Barry Saunders

Mentoring program helps children in foster care

The first day of school was coming up. Heck, it was the next day, and Terry Johnson, going to the 10th grade, realized he didn’t have money for new clothes.

He was determined to get it, though. “I’m going to have those clothes,” he told me he told himself. “I’m going to have that money.”

So Johnson, a little dude at about 5-foot-6 then – he’s a couple of inches taller now – grabbed a big gun and strode into the Marriott Hotel in Burlington and demanded money from the clerk.

His running buddy and he got away with $227, not much even before the 50-50 split.

That was no big deal, though, because he knew he could just rob somebody else when that ran out. “There was hardly a day went by that I didn’t steal something or rob someone.”

Fortunately for Johnson and for whoever he may have run into when he was broke, he got caught after the hotel caper.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said of the time, four months later, that cops nabbed him for armed robbery.

Johnson was one of the 24 former foster care children I met last week at St. Mark United Methodist Church. They were all participants in the Methodist Home for Children scholarship and mentoring program HELP – Hackley Education and Learning Program – and had gathered to hear the founder of that program speak.

The person for whom the program is named and its scheduled speaker, Lloyd V. “Vic” Hackley, had to leave early – grandson got sick – but there was still an abundance of motivational words. They came from program participants, like Johnson.

Johnson is 18 now. He was 15 when he held up the hotel but 16 when he got caught. That means he was facing heavy time.

“Ever since the age of 7, I was always in crime,” Johnson told. “My father died when I was 10. That scarred me pretty bad. I was the youngest out of seven, so at the moment, I had to basically feed myself ... walk to the store by myself. Right around 11, I started drinking, smoking, partying. Selling drugs. I did so much stuff. I’ve been in trouble pretty much my whole life.”

Johnson is now a student at Guilford Community College and the published author of a book of poetry, “Forsaken Petrification.” Many of the poems talk about his life, its past and future.

His bright future began, he said, when he got saved while awaiting trial and after a conversation with his mother. She was an alcoholic, he said, “And even though we didn’t have a good relationship, what she said got to me.”

What’d she say?

“They were trying to give me seven to 10 years” for the robbery, he said, “And she told me ‘By the time you get out of prison, I’ll be dead.’ That played on my mind... I prayed, read the Bible and told God if they didn’t send me to prison, I’d straighten up.”

Everybody facing time says that. You have, I have, too. Johnson, though, so far has meant it. He didn’t get seven to 10. “They sent me to Dobbs Youth Development Center and then I went to the Methodist Home for a year,” he said. “All together, the system got about two years of my life.”

When most people think of foster care, they think of Little Orphan Annie, a happily-ever-after life story that can be summed up in a Broadway musical in which everyone sings “The sun will come out tomorrow” at the end and the audience applauds and stomps.

For many kids in foster care, the sun doesn’t come out tomorrow or the next day – at least not without a lot of help and luck. Which is why the incredible people at the Methodist Home for Children do what they do. Every one of the people with whom I spoke seemed committed to every one of the young people, committed to ensuring that kids like Terry find a way out of crippling circumstances.

Bruce Stanley, president and CEO of the home, said in his remarks that, while intervention is a key component, “Prevention is the most important thing. All children deserve to be raised in the least restrictive environment.”

That’s what happened for DeCarlo Buie. Buie, 22, told me “I don’t even remember the system, because I got adopted by my foster family (at two or three, he’s not sure which) and have been with the same family since I was 18.”

Buie is a music-composition major at Oakwood University in Alabama, the same school that singer Brian McKnight attended. He wants to be a music producer but now is the minister of music at a church in Alabama. That is why he had to hit the road, Jack, for the nine-hour drive back to Alabama immediately after the HELP luncheon.

Johnson and Buie talked about the need to give back to the program, but they’ve got a lot of giving to equal that of Hackley, a former board member and chairman of the Home.

Hackley said he was born into “grave” poverty and was a low-achieving student. It was only after joining the Air Force at 17, he said, that he realized he was wasting his life.

The dude who was graduated from high school with a minuscule grade point average has earned doctoral degrees and served as president of the N.C. Community College System, and as chancellor of both Fayetteville State University and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He has also been an associate professor of political science and coach of track and cross-country at the Air Force Academy. He has served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and is chairman emeritus of the National Character Counts! Coalition.

“I’ve reached the age,” Hackley told me gleefully after the program, “Where I can tell people what I think – good, bad or indifferent.”

You’ve also reached the age, I noted, where you can play golf all day and just chill. Why didn’t you?

“Let me say this,” he said. “I know it sounds like a cliche, but there’s an old saying – if you love what you do, you’ll never work again. I love what I do.”

After talking to the young people who’ve benefited from the efforts of the Methodist Home staff and Hackley, it’s obvious to me that they love what he does, too.