Wednesday, July 17, 2013

5 years and counting...

5 years and counting…. 5 years ago on July 17th, 2008 I arrived in Pittsburgh. If you’re interested in what brought me to Pittsburgh and how I ended up here, you can access my blog at . I’d love to describe my journey over the last 5 years and what it’s been like for a suburban white male in his late forties to immerse himself in an urban setting. I thought that when I came to Pittsburgh that I’d be helping with Urban Impact’s “Play Ball for Kids” program. I’ve always been in some sort of money raising activity and this seemed to be a fit that would work perfect for me. Plans were different. I ended up in our athletics program and specializing in getting our youth plans for after high school and even helping them pick up the pieces of their life when their post high school plans didn’t work out so well.

I remember the first time I was involved in a Program. Jeff Hartings and I were tasked with creating a basketball team for our fall basketball league. This was to be Urban Impact’s first team in several years. I was tasked with picking up some of the guys and Pittsburgh’s roads were built with very poor planning and before they came up with a grid system. Armed with a cell phone and a couple of phone numbers I was able to contact one of our youth. I’m still in contact with this young man and we laugh about that phone call and the difficulty I had in following his instructions to his place. Once I picked him up he took me into my first visit into the projects called, “North View Heights”. I had just seen the movie “Training Day” with Denzel Washington and driving into NVH reminded me of the scene when Denzel drove into the hood. To be perfectly honest, I was scared as I was in unfamiliar territory. It’s a funny memory now as I’m a known person in projects and I drive through it with my window down, waving at people I’ve gotten to know over the years. I’ll hear “coach Chad” yelled from youth and parents whom I’ve gotten to know.

The fall season came and went. I was tired and wondering why did God call me to this place? If I didn’t see another high school student for the rest of my life, that would’ve been ok with me. I got a phone call a few weeks later from one of the guys who played on our team. Most of the guys were now playing on the high school basketball team and they had a game coming up. He asked me if I’d come to the game. I figured he just wanted me to take him out to eat afterwards. Sure enough, I show up at the game. I’m walking towards the stands past the team as they were warming up. The boys stop warming up and come over and give me a hug and thank me for coming. I just about cried. I’ve spoken to some of them about that years after the event and they said it was like the CEO or an NBA coach walked in the gym. They were completely excited and I had read their feelings for me wrongly.

There wasn’t a night that didn’t go by that one of the guys didn’t call. Mostly they needed a ride here or there but every now and then they just wanted to talk. I tried to take them out of their comfort zones. If we went out to eat, we’d leave the North Side. Instead of going to the mall, we’d go to Philadelphia or Niagara Falls. We’d play 20 questions in the car. For almost a year if you’d were in my car, you’d hear one of the guys say…”Who am I thinking of?”

My second year here, most of the original guys I met were graduating from high school. My relationship with them had grown exponentially. I was able to help them get into college and more importantly, I was able to help them see that they might live past the age of 21. This had a compounding effect. Other youth whom I’d met and were part of Urban Impact’s programs came to me for help. I soon became known as someone who could help others with Options in life.

As time went on and some of my young men failed at college they realized that they could come to me without judgment and I’d help them dust off their failures and restart. Companies that were part of our Play Ball for Kids program started offering what I call “living wage” jobs. With the help of donors we were able to get jobs for some of these young men. For some of these guys, they are the first ones in a couple of generations to have a steady job at a decent wage and benefits. The employers have been pleasantly surprised as they thought they were doing a favor by giving these young men jobs (they were) but these young men are some of their best employees and they come to me when they need to hire more.

This year some of my young men will be seniors in college and I look forward to them entering Master’s programs or the workforce. Some guys are just letting life go by, not unlike myself at their age, but they are beginning to see that there is hope for them out there.

One of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with in Pittsburgh has been the violence. I’ve lost count of all the young men who have bullet wounds. I’ve been fortunate to only had one youth I’ve known personally die. I watched young men in high school get incarcerated for various reasons. It’s been hard. It’s a different life in the hood. One of the young men I know is currently paralyzed in the hospital from taking 4 bullets. I was driving with some of his friends the other day and they were talking about how you can’t hang out in the same place all the time. We were outside of the hood in suburbia and I pointed to a place that looked like a nice place to hang out and I told them that they could hang there 100 years and never get shot. They shook their heads but the thought was almost unbelievable.

What do the next 5 years look like? I have some guesses but I’m sure I’m wrong. I’m just hoping to follow God’s leading and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Born in the wrong zipcode but making his way out!

I know I haven't posted in awhile on my blog but I've had a few requests from some of you out there to let you know what's going on. Let me tell you...I have a doozie of a story. This story goes back to spring of 2011. A lot of the information that I'm speaking about in 2013 was gotten by talking with the student, his admissions officer, mentor and college coach. There was this young man who started coming to one of our basketball programs. This young man is a quiet kid and very unassuming. I started asking other young men I knew about this guy and they all had nothing but positive things to say about this young man. We started to become acquainted and throughout the time we started to develop a relationship. I found out that this young man wanted to attend a very prestigious private college which is located near Pittsburgh. Understanding the school he went to, I didn't have much hope in this young man attending this school. I actually took him to tours of other schools but he kept repeating that he was going to attend this other school. Little did I know but he had been working with a great North Side mentor who was walking him through the process. His grades were decent but his SAT scores weren't close to what the school accepted. Despite this downfall he didn't let this deter him. He kept writing letters to admissions and to the basketball coach saying that he was going to attend this school. The perseverance of this young man was the strongest I've seen in 5 years of doing this. Through that perseverance and several interviews the college decided to let him attend. I was called in to help him secure his financial aid and even worked with the school as they had little to no experience with the Pittsburgh Promise which was a majority of his financial aid. The young man's dream and his mom's desire were working out. Throughout the summer of 2012 I got to know this young man better as he worked in our summer day camp and also played on our basketball teams. Our education director took a chance on him in letting him work in the summer day camp as normally she only hires students who've completed their freshman year of college. This young man didn't disappoint and he made my recommendation of him to work the camp a success. It was finally time for this young man to enter college.... This is where the story starts getting even more interesting. Have you ever had a dream where the reality doesn't match the dream? This is what happened to this young man. As I said before this is one of the top private colleges in America. They compete for Engineering and Computer Science students from MIT and Rochester Institute of Technology. Their niche is they cater to students who want a Christian worldview. A little back story on this young man is he was a good student in high school with an approx. GPA of 3.3. His integrity was far beyond any I've seen of all the youth I've worked with on the North Side as witnessed from a Scholarship program he attended while in high school and his summer day camp experience. He also was able to receive a stipend from the scholarship program he attended which most students used for their proms yet he decided to save it for college as he knew the opportunity that was in front of him. The downside of all these great things was the fact that the high school he attended was at least in the bottom 5% of high schools in the country if not 1%. Despite all his efforts throughout high school he was going to be behind everyone else just because of the circumstances he was born into and the zip code he lived in. Fast forward to the fall of 2012 and the beginning of his freshman year. I was attending a church near the college and I knew a couple who are professors at the university. As this is a small university I asked them if they could keep an eye on this young man and his attitude and progress. A few days later a received a phone call that wasn't great news. I found out that the classes this student enrolled into were probably the wrong ones and to multiply the problems I found out that he wasn't doing well. Myself and his basketball coach from UIF decided drive up there and visit him. We arranged to meet with admissions, my professor friends and the basketball coach. My professor friends helped rearrange his schedule so he was in the proper courses that were the proper gradient for him. They, along with the basketball coach spoke with each of their professors and got buy in that they were going to do all that they could do to bring this young man up to the standards held by the College. This was good news. We then were able to meet with this young man and the coach. (As an aside, while the myself and the UIF coach were waiting in admissions we were watching some of the other prospective students. You need to understand that both of us live and work in the hood. We glance over and see a prospective student, he is wearing penny loafers, khakis and argyles. We feel as though we were transported back to 1982.) This young man walked up to us and we both saw from the look on his face that all wasn't well. He had never been required to do homework in his past previous years in college and he had a load of it. He also spoke about not being able to sleep at night. From my previous relationships with him I knew that he loved taking afternoon naps yet these naps were for 2-3 hours. I convinced him that a nap was 30 minutes and to limit the nap times. We then walked into the lunchroom which happened to be packed with students. Myself and both coaches sat down with this young man. We listened to his frustrations. As we listened, it just sounded like a young man who was away from home for the first time and in a totally different environment. The college coach than came up with a brilliant observation. He told the young student to look around the room and tell him what he saw. This young man told us that he saw a bunch of privileged white kids who were all doing well. The coach called bs on this and then let him know about how most of the students were receiving their first B's, C's, D's and possibly F's for the first time in their life. He then told him to get to know some of them and he will find out how looks can be deceiving. I then realized that he was also going through the same thing, he was not the best at what he was doing for the first time in his life and he needed to once again rise to the top. After hearing this and he kind of smiled and we knew that he was going to live for another day. As the coach and I were leaving the college, we both knew that this young man had a rough road in front of him. Racially he was out of place with about 2% of the people who looked like him. Economically, I can't imagine any other student being lower although I don't have the data for this but I'm pretty sure. He was in for a tough year. Throughout the year I stayed in touch with him. I made sure that he had rides home over the holidays and we had lunch. I was able to visit him and drop of gifts during 3 of his games and was able to get some of his friends to attend. He finished his first semester over a 2.0 and was able to avoid academic probation. Things were looking up. This young man finished his basketball season and then focused all his attention onto his school work. During this time he contacted me concerning working at the Summer Day Camp this year. (Of course) We were able to take a group of our young man to this particular college for a tour and this young man gave a moving Q&A to these young men he's grown up with. Today I was able to pick up this young man after finishing his 1st year in college. He is doing well and his GPA is in a very respectable range. He knows what it takes to be a student now and is ready to move onward and upward next year.