I mentor some young men who are at high risk of ending up dead or in prison. They all have similar life experiences that include little to no parental involvement, dangerous neighborhoods and regular exposure to many bad influences. My hope is that by exposing them to safe, fun activities and by asking them about their dreams and goals they will start to believe that a good, long life is a real possibility.

During a recent conversation with one of these young men, I asked him to walk me through how he went from being a straight A student from kindergarten through 8th grade to being locked up for possession and sent to a group home in one year’s time. This is what he shared with me:

In 8th grade he began to receive inquiries from the most prestigious private schools in town to play football and basketball for them. He received full scholarship offers as an 8th grader for four years of high school! His grades and test scores, combined with his athletic potential, indicated he could hold his own both in the classroom and in the gym or on the field – but he didn’t think he’d fit in at those schools. All of his ‘homeboys’ looked and acted differently than the kids at the private schools, so he did not accept the scholarships. Instead, he decided to be a star at his neighborhood high school. He was staying out of trouble by going to the local community center every day after school. He would play basketball or lift weights until late in the evening, then go home and study before bedtime, motivated only by himself (not by a watchful parent). Then someone thought it would be a great idea to renovate the community center. The center closed for a year to do so, giving the kids no other place to hang out other than the streets.

He was attracted to the oversized hooded jackets and saggy jeans of the older boys. He liked how everyone ‘respected’ them. He said, “I thought all of it was a fashion statement until it was too late.” By too late, he meant that what had started as a cool way to fit in soon became a dangerous way to spend his time. His peer group was selling drugs and carrying weapons instead of comparing receptions, rebounds and ACT scores. He had no adult in his life who could see the dangerous path down which he was moving. No one was there to help set him straight, hold him accountable or have an honest, love-based conversation around the consequences of his actions. His peer group was his family – they were there anytime he needed them. They came to the hospital the first and second time he was shot and he did the same for them. Sometimes they were locked up together and it made them feel better to have a friend with them on the inside. They shared common experiences and challenges. Their conversations were often about who had been shot or locked up or worse, killed. They would have shirts printed with a picture of a recently murdered friend and wear them with pride as their way of not forgetting them and as a way to mourn.

On this day, I had picked him up around 6:15am and we were headed to hear a speaker whose topic was accomplishing goals. As we sat in my car at a red light, he turned to me and said, “I’d be a different person if I had accepted those scholarships, wouldn’t I, Mrs. Sharpe?” I could see the anguish in his eyes but did not want to be dishonest with him. We had agreed a while back that we would be honest with each other. I would not judge and he would not lie.

“No, you would be the same wonderful person you are. But you would have had different experiences,” I offered. “I am guessing you realize how big the impact of your decisions can be on your life in a way you might not have if you had not had the awful experiences you’ve had the past 3 years.”

The light turned green and we moved ahead.

“I’ma make good choices from now on,” he stated. I patted his hand.

Two months later he graduated from high school – about 7 months late but with a diploma, not a GED –achieving a goal he had set. He wants to go to college and has been getting offers from both 4-year programs and community colleges. He has not registered yet. He is worried he won’t fit in. His homeboys aren’t in college.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, but am hopeful. That’s just me and we talk almost every day and he is asking the right questions – like, “Can I take chemistry and psychology?” and “Is it okay if I want to be a firefighter?”

He knows education is the key, but those negative influences are still swarming around him. I don’t have an answer as to how to keep them away. I fantasize about a dude ranch where I can bring him and hundreds others where they will be safe. I wonder if his life would be different if I’d connected with him earlier. Every day I think of ways I can help him fill his time productively, so there is less room for negative things on his fashion list.

Just last week I came to pick him up for a book signing and walked through the clutter of trash in the yard up to the front door of his house. The door was open and his mother called me in. He was not there, and as usual, the front room was dark and smoke-filled. His mother sat on a tattered couch and his grandmother on a pile of laundry, smoking. His 2-year-old niece looked up at me and ran quickly to her grandmother, despite my smile and soft greeting. We chatted for a minute and his mother said she did not know where he was, that he’d “been gone a while.”

“Not a problem. Tell him I came by and to give me a call when he’s back.” I said, meaning it. I have made a choice not to dismiss him for lack of dependability.

As I left I turned and saw the little girl at the screened door, face pressed against the glass, smiling and waving. I tried not to judge, but could not suppress a swell of anger at the situation she was in at no fault of her own. I also felt ashamed that I thought I could offer her something better.

“Bye sweetheart,” I offered, wondering what I was supposed to do.

– Becky Sharpe, President & CEO