Silver Spring mentoring program helps guide youth
More than 80 teens helped over 10-year history
At 13, Shawn Harrison knew he needed help.
He was fighting at school, experimenting with drugs and had seen people shot and stabbed. Still, he would drag himself out of bed on weekends to attend a young men's mentoring program at his church.
"I would do all this in school, and yet, for some reason, I was still drawn to the program," said Harrison, 23. "I would wake up Saturday and go in there and they'd say, Hey, how you doing?' ... and I would tell them what happened."
Harrison credits the program, Rites of Passage, for helping him make it through that part of his life. A member of the first class, he is among more than 80 people who have attended the program since it began in 2000.
This week, the three-year program for black teens, offered through the People's Community Baptist Church in Silver Spring, celebrates its 10th anniversary. It was created to instill long-range values in its participants, said program Cofounder Norman Jones.
"Our young men were in many ways encountering a lot of issues as young black men in the school system," he said. "Trying to figure out how they should be, what are their values, their counterculture remained strong."
Jones said many young congregants lacked strong values and instead looked to careers in the NBA and NFL as a means to success. So he and cofounder Ron Sturdivant established Rites of Passage at just the right time. The boys receive one-on-one mentoring, listen to lecturers, attend Bible study, do physical exercise and go on field trips. After three years, eligible participants go on a trip to Africa, he said.
For Harrison, attending the program taught self-confidence, even as he was having trouble.
"I never really thought of myself as being successful," he said. "It took a while for me to get to the point of, Hey, I can do this, no problem. Hey, I can succeed in life with no problem. I can be all I expected to be and more.'"
Harrison was raised by a single mother and was evicted several times throughout his childhood, he said. He got in fights nearly every week at Springbrook High School, was suspended, and was sent to live with his father in New Jersey to finish high school. Through these troubles, and even while he lived in New Jersey, Harrison participated in the mentoring program and sought Jones' advice and support.
Today, Harrison is studying to be a chef at the Art Institute of Washington. He works at a hotel in Silver Spring as a line cook and for a private catering company.
"I know people care and people want to see the best of me, but you have to go through your own struggles, I guess, for you to make it out," he said. "I know people I grew up with who did the same things I did, and to this day, we talk and they say, Out of everyone we hung out with, we're kind of glad you're the one on the right path.'"
Harrison said he's looking forward to taking on another job: mentor. When the program starts again in November, he will be using his own stories to motivate young men to stay on track.
"I still find it fascinating that God put me in a position to mentor others," he said. "I would say it's a blessing for me to be able to do it."