The person who has taught me the most this fall is a young man named Luis (who has given me permission to write this). I had the privilege of teaching him his last high school course this fall, called LifeSkills. We met two to three times a week for 2 hours each visit. Before we started meeting I was told he was 18 years old, had grown up on the streets of Camden selling drugs, and that I should “be real” with him. I honestly wondered what a suburban woman could teach him that would be of value, and I remember the first time we met telling him that I fully expected to get as much out of the exchange as he would, if not more.
What I couldn’t know was just how profoundly Luis would help me see into the value of what UrbanPromise holds for youth in Camden.
Along with the curriculum I was given for the course, I added the novel, “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore. It’s a book about 2 guys with the same name who both grew up in Baltimore, MD in similar circumstances: poor, single moms, drug dealers on the corner. One ends up a Rhodes Scholar, the other in jail for life on murder charges. Luis doesn’t particularly like to read, but as the course progressed he did read the whole book, and it generated some interesting discussions.
One that stands out was when the Wes Moores discussed when they became “men”. I asked Luis this question, and without a pause he said, “When I was 12”. “Twelve? How’s that possible?” I asked. Well, at 12, Luis was living with his mother and stepdad in Gloucester City. Luis was home when he found his stepfather unresponsive for the second time due to a heroin overdose – since no one else was home he ran to the nearest pay phone and called 911. “I saved his life twice, you know.” His mom kicked the stepfather out of the house, and Luis distinctly remembers him turning to Luis and saying, “you’re the man of the house now.” Shortly thereafter Luis’ mom was arrested and put in jail for 6 years, leaving him to live with his grandparents back in Camden. Luis remembers moving in, opening up the refrigerator, and seeing no food. Feeling every bit the ‘man of the house’ he went out to the drug corner and begged for a job. After some initial resistance, because he was too young, he was given a job and was paid. He headed directly for the corner store, bought eggs, milk and bread, and kept the refrigerator stocked for his grandmother.
Every time I recount this story my heart aches. I think of my children at 12 and how their jobs were to do their homework and to play. Heck, I think of when I was 12 and didn’t have a care in the world other than the crush I had on a boy. Luis was robbed of a childhood. So many kids in Camden are robbed of childhoods. The LifeSkills curriculum had a section on making healthy choices to reduce risk – it wanted me to discuss wearing a helmet while riding a bike! Luis needed to talk about choosing a path that would demand hard work and wouldn’t pay a lot versus making a lot of money dealing drugs.
Luis was arrested when he was 13 for drug dealing, and spent 3 years in juvenile detention, where the gangs continued their brotherhoods regardless of setting. It was when he was released that he connected with UrbanPromise through their BoatWorks program in south Camden. He also got involved with the after school program under the leadership of Tony Vega. Tony became a mentor for Luis. Luis enrolled in the high school at UP, UrbanPromise Academy. Unfortunately while he was walking to the supply store to buy a backpack, he ran into a friend who was still dealing. He reluctantly agreed to play lookout, thinking it would only be a few minutes, when the police arrived and he was again arrested.
When UP found out about this, the entire staff showed up in the courtroom. Long story short, instead of returning to juvenile detention, Luis became the full time responsibility of UP, and a long time supportive family of UP agreed to have Luis live with them while he attended school. That was 2 years ago. He’s come a long way, and I am lucky to know him, as Luis is a bright, articulate and compassionate young man. I only wish his future was assured. Just this week the Philadelphia Inquirer started a series on the lack of jobs for high school graduates. As difficult as it was to buckle down and finish high school, Luis is going to need more education. Currently his plan is to become an intern for a year at UrbanPromise in Honduras. He reminds me of our son at that age, understanding the importance of education but not necessarily having the focus or drive needed to get the work done. Hopefully a year or more away will buy the time he needs to mature some more – and will also keep him safe. I know that everyone at UP Camden plans on continuing to support him on his journey.
So as this year closes, I give thanks for Luis, and for those with whom I am connected who have given him a second chance at life. And I give thanks for all of you who have shown me support with this Wellness Center initiative. Please keep us all in your prayers!