“How many have seen or know someone who was murdered?”
Six of nine hands went up.
“How many have a family member who’s spent time in jail?”
Three of nine hands went up.
Those questions and the sobering, silent answers of boys ages 9 to 13 emerged at a workshop on role modeling and smart choices for at-risk kids at the Wexler-Grant School Thursday afternoon.
The session was part of the city’s week-long spring break initiative to keep schools open and give kids meals and productive ways to spend their times. The session also revived a 2009 program launched by community activist Clifton Graves and Tom Ficklin to nurture “Obama Scholars.” The program brought doctors, lawyers, professionals of calls kinds including policemen, firefighters, as well as ex-convicts into the schools to give kids a preview of life’s choices, good and bad, and incentive to make the right calls.
As the first group of boys assembled Thursday in a Wexler-Grant classroom near the cafeteria, Graves said the program’s purpose is “to share stories and put a face for these young boys of those who look like them and survived and succeeded.”
On Thursday he brought Rodney Williams and Kamairi Cooper to tell their stories and their dreams in a trial run for the workshop’s hoped-for revival.
To a rapt group of kids, Williams, a lifelong Newhallville resident, described how back in 1988 he was driving with a suspended license when a cop stopped him. The cop looked the other way. Instead of starting down felony road, Williams said he became a corrections officer. That career behind him, he’s now a successful private drywall contractor.
Kamairi Cooper saw his best friend, age 13, get killed by a stray bullet in the Hill, where they lived. The two were walking to the grocery store, he said, and the bullets were meant for others. The one that killed his friend also changed Cooper’s life. He swore off the life of the streets, graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, and is now a restaurant manager.
As kids will be kids, the first question they asked Cooper was how he hurt his hand. Answer: Helping out one of his chefs in the kitchen.
Then the kids talked, some with tears in their eyes, about how they’d seen murder and mayhem in their neighborhoods, including watching a parent get arrested.
One kid remained silent.
Cooper said he knew all about being silent: “You guys know what’s going on. You might not want to talk about it, but it’s there.”
Fishing & Alders
“That’s so sad. That these kids got to grow up knowing someone killed or family member in jail. At their age!” Williams said.
“When I was your age, I wished someone would have taken me away in the summer.”
Now the owner of a 30-foot vessel docked at a marina on the Quinnipiac River, Williams is in a position to do just that. “I’m going to take all of you fishing,” he promised.
Williams and Cooper followed the kids in their wide-ranging topics that included smoking cigarettes, what to do when the drunk girl in the neighborhood approaches your mom and asks for money or a cigarette, and how everyone in the room can’t be a professional basketball or football player and must have a career Plan B.
Cooper summed up: “The people you surround yourself with will define your future.”