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Self-Esteem, Nonviolence Priorities in Program : Alternatives: Troubled youngsters are teamed with adults to 'show you there is something else out there besides the drugs, the violence, the street life.'


DURHAM, N.C. — Kwame Hester was headed for the kind of trouble teens find all too often.

"He was fighting all the time, a chip on his shoulder, and he was not living in a kind neighborhood," said his father, Larry Hester.

As a 10-year-old living with his mother in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York, Kwame didn't have the support at home to survive on the streets.

"I had to learn for myself to do what I had to do," he said. "I really didn't care about school. I hardly went."

"In five years I would either be dead or in jail, the rate I was going," said Kwame, now 18.

Instead, Kwame moved to Durham to live with his father and was among the first to graduate from a program that pairs young black youths with adult mentors, who teach such things as nonviolence and self-esteem.

The key lesson: "It shows you there is something else out there besides the drugs, the violence, the street life," Kwame said.

"Being a man is not when you're 18. It's when you know how to take care of your family and take care of yourself."

Kwame works in his father's shoe-repair shop and plans to enter the National Guard. He has been admitted to St. Augustine's College and wants to major in business administration.

The program is run by Rites of Passage, supported by a group of black-owned businesses, which is getting a big boost from a $1.8-million, five-year grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It's one of three test projects to determine if adult role models and lessons in nonviolence can act as a vaccine against violence.

"Durham was pushed because of the fact that the population was small enough to observe but had the same problems of a lot of the larger cities," said Harlee Ballard, executive director of Rites of Passage and himself a mentor for three years.

The federal funds will allow the program to expand from 10 or 15 youths per year to 40, starting in January. Graduates will be offered jobs and entrepreneurial training as further incentives to stay off the streets.

Project leaders are appealing for more volunteers.

"There is a need for positive black role models to come out and take on the responsibilities of raising the next generation," Ballard said.

But he warned that the task is difficult. "It's not easy to win them over. They have their own language and value system. You have to get them to see they have to have a value system that is the same as the larger community."

Ballard calls the work a "personal crusade" that helped him redeem "20 years when I was lost on the streets of America." The former Marine got a master's degree while in prison for armed robbery and drug charges.

"I have three daughters and I started to realize, none of these boys could come knock on my door and talk about seeing my daughters because their heads were on backwards," he said.

Mentoring, which can take eight or 10 hours a month, sometimes helps the mentors as much as the youths, Ballard said.

"We're just not talking about taking boys to baseball games," added Arnold Dennis, director of the Durham County Youth Home and a key consultant on the program. "We're talking about teaching them about being a man, making commitments and keeping them."

Both mentor and youth learn a lot about African history, the economics of communities, ethics, conflict avoidance, male sexuality and survival skills. The teens also undergo survival training in the woods.

At the end of six months, the youths are feted at a public ceremony and formally request admission to the community as adult males, Ballard said.

By that time, they've learned to put racism in perspective and to value contributions they can make to humanity, he said.

"If you go through this, you learn about the contributions your race and family have made," Ballard said. "You think more highly of yourself. Then, if you see somebody who looks just like you, you're not so ready to lash out in violence."

The greatest danger, he said, is to give these teens the notion that no one cares.

"If we don't intervene," Ballard said, "we're going to be the victims of these children."

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