'Project Alpha' educates boys about sex and it’s sometimes dire consequences
By Chris Levister –
Riverside Juvenile Hall, known informally as “juvie”, sits in a quiet residential neighborhood behind a towering barbed wire fence and multiple security gates.
Saturday under the watchful eyes of county probation officers a group of 60 young offenders ages 12-18, dressed in color coded garb filed lock step into sunlit rooms, hands laced firmly behind their backs.
Despite faces devoid of emotion, it was hard to miss the innocence behind their broken expression as they lay eyes on the 50 African American men ringing the walls.
The bankers, actors, architects, physicians, researchers, attorneys, engineers, educators, entrepreneurs and other professionals dressed in black and gold are members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the nation’s oldest Black Greek organization.
“Come on in young men. Glad to see you,” said Brother Norman Towels, Ph.D. , veteran Riverside County school administrator, long time counselor at the facility and event host.
“We want these kids to see beyond the negat ive stereotype of the African American man portrayed in virtually every form of visual, print and audio media today,” said Mu Xi Lambda Inland Empire Chapter President Kevin Simon. “We are more than rappers and sports figures. We are also successful professionals, brothers, sons and responsible fathers.”
The event, called “Project Alpha, is sponsored by the fraternity along with chapters from Pasadena, the Inland Empire and area colleges. The March of Dimes and the fraternity established the program in 1980.
Project Alpha emphasizes parental responsibility and focuses on safe sex as it relates to avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among elementary and high school students.
Give me seven characteristics of a man, Project Alpha chair LeAnder Nicholson asked the charges following a 15 minute video on sex and sexuality. The youth eagerly responded, “Strong, responsible, humble, respectful, accountable and supportive, and…good looking,” added one youth.
“So how many of you know the difference between a man and a boy,” Nicholson asked.
“You grow hair on your chest and the girls throw themselves at you,” responded one kid.
Another responded “You’re a man when you can get the girls knocked up.”
“You need to know the facts,” said neurobiologist, Kevin Mott who explained how unsafe sex and untreated Chlamydia and gonorrhea could adversely affect a man’s ability to become a father.
One part of the program involved trying to identify STDs from a description of symptoms.
The teens recoiled and covered their eyes. "Does it hurt?" a youngster asked "You bet it does," answered Mott. He spoke candidly about HIV/AIDS, herpes and STDs.
He explained the number of HIV/AIDS cases for African Americans continues to be disproportionately high.
One participant asked if warts can develop through oral sex. “Yes, if there is an exchange of blood or other bodily fluids,” answered Mott, adding “The less you know about sex the more dangerous you are.”
Asked when one would know one is ready for sex, a young offender who appeared sullen and angry at the start of the event answered, “When you get a job, when you get an education.”
“So what if you are locked up in the juvie – does that mean you can’t have sex,” asked a 14-yearold participant. A fellow offender responded, “Don’t be double stupid, use a condom.”
“These young people are searching for their male identity. They’re dealing with the mistakes that landed them in here combined with normal maturity issues such as sexuality and peer pressure,” explained Eta Pi Lambda Pasadena Chapter President Jerome Cannon.
“Even though we are a Black fraternity, we believe in diversity and reaching out to everyone,” said Cannon.
“However young men exert their sexuality, the goal is for them to have safe and healthy relationships.”
“We try to impress upon them that sexual responsibility is more important than having sex and having a good time,” said Martin Yarbrough, Sr. an Alpha since 1953.
The boys also heard personal stories about hardship and how the transition from school to being a teenage father is not easy.
“You have to get a job and buy things for a baby instead of yourself,” said Alpha historian Jeremy Vasquez. “If you don't have a strong support system, it could be your demise,"
“I grew up in a low-rent project in Harlem. Like some of you, I was a member of a gang. I can identify with you,” San Bernardino physician and chemical engineer Ernest Levister told the youth. “You’re kids. You still have a chance to wake up and turn your lives around.”
Marion Black an Alpha since 1956 recalled the fraternity’s long history of sharing knowledge by combating ignorance and fear with factual information.
“Then, as now, Alpha men were called to do great things, to reach back and uplift others,” he said.
County Supervising Probation Officer Dennis Kamilos says the men sent a timely and crucial message to the youthful offenders.
“What I first noticed was the sincerity and enthusiasm on the fraternity brother’s faces. Their honesty sent a powerful message to these kids that they are not alone.
That can turn their lives around,” said Kamilos. “However small the number, probably 1 out of 10 of these kids will take that message seriously – maybe not immediately but somewhere down the line there will be a transformative moment,” he said. “It was an excellent exchange. It would be great if we had a group like this every week.”
“We have the audacity to believe that if we can raise just one eyebrow, open just one eye we can give a kid a fighting chance,” said Cannon.
"It’s said, ‘To err is human. To forgive is divine’ because all people make mistakes,” he said.
“Our message to these kids is, okay you’ve made a mistake – forgive yourself, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and face the troubles in your life head on.”
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