Men who’ve overcome adversity help students find their purpose
By Chris Levister –
“The person, who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.”
“Life is tough, but it's tougher when you're stupid.”
Can tough talk keep boys in school?
Organizers of San Bernardino High School’s ‘Man of Integrity’ program sure hope so. Harkening back to simpler times, 50 of the school’s highest risk boys in dress shirts and ties gathered at the historic Arrowhead Springs Resort tucked away in the foothills of San Bernardino.
Built in the 1930’s as a retreat for the rich and famous, last week the private enclave which features healing hot springs, crystal chandeliers, and breath taking views opened its doors to more lofty goals: saving boys from falling behind in school and life.
“Tough times demand tough talk,” says Michelle Rogers, a program specialist at the high school.
“Sometimes getting the message across requires yanking your targeted audience out of their comfort zone.”
Rogers brought together 10 role models, armed not with guns, but the power of inspirational words, community service and firsthand knowledge of overcoming difficult backgrounds.
“My father was a drunk. I stole stuff. I sold drugs,” said Ray Culberson now the director of Youth Services for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. Culberson uses his personal knowledge of gang life to help steer students clear of gangs.
“I grew up learning the rules of the hood: Cool, tough and hard.” Culberson urged the boys to use those ‘heart of the hood’ lessons and attitudes to their advantage.
“Recognize the moment. Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to me made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, define yourself,” he said.
When San Bernardino High School alum and ex-NFL player Mark Seay made his way onto the stage, he was greeted by restless eyes. A flash of an AFC Championship ring and tales of his Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers sparked curiosity.
But the boy’s eyes locked onto Seay, when he started telling his own story: how he took a bullet to save his niece in Long Beach and later lost his two brothers to gunfire.
He explained how a man who has endured so much hardship can go on to the NFL, enjoy a successful career in corporate America and stand before them smiling, his religious faith stronger than ever.
Seay travels across the Southland sharing his story of perseverance with kids, churches and community groups on behalf of Colton-based Stater Bros., the largest independent supermarket chain in Southern California.
"My journey has taught me that when something happens, God prepares you beforehand, if you allow him to," said Seay, who still has a bullet lodged near his heart, a constant reminder of how close he came to death.
Seay recalled dodging fierce gang recrui tment even after he’d caught the eye of college football recruiters.
Gang recruiters he said waited around corners on his walks home in Compton. But before he left school, he always made sure his younger brother, James, was at his side. They saw fights, heard gunfire and tried to blend in to survive.
“Although we were afraid within, we had to look unafraid," Seay said. “The gang-bangers preyed on those who looked scared.”
“Young males are bombarded with images and media accounts of gun toting, drug selling, foul-mouthed thugs with pants hanging below their posterior ... boys to be feared,” says Rogers.
“How do you ask these boys to shape up, act like men, stay in school and become successful when they are surrounded by a constant drumbeat of self destruction.”
“When you have only a few hours to motivate these boys you’ve got to talk fast, keep it real, and pack a punch to deliver the message,” said San Bernardino City Unified Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kennon Mitchell. “You can’t all be football and basketball stars. Find your strength; stay in school; have a plan; execute it; push past your limit.”
“I think they’re telling us a high school dropout can steal a car; but if he has a good education, he can buy a car dealership,” said a student marveling at the resort’s vintage luxury. “Is this place for sale,” he said with a giggle.
“You should stay in school. A person who is well educated has an easier time getting through this crazy life,” said DeMauria Tropet.
“I learned pursuing a career in ‘securities’ doesn’t mean becoming a security guard,” said a student who dreams of working on Wall Street.
“The message I got was that we are only “at-risk youth” if we allow ourselves to be,” said Steven Adame whose brother is in prison.
“We have to be careful to hang out with the right crowds and not get sidetracked; we have to make smart decisions,” added Malyk Wright.
“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, Grow,” said a young charge summing up the conference. “People always push me to pursue break dancing, rapping and sports but until now, I’ve never had anyone look me in the eye and tell me I can become a lawyer.”
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