One of the first kids I ever mentored was charged with murder at 14 years old. He stole a car, was chased by the police, ended up losing control, and crashing into a 56-year-old woman in a wheelchair who was waiting to cross the street. I remember learning about the story on the news and having to sit in court with him during his trial. He turned to me one day with tears in his eyes and said “I’m sorry for letting you down.” I went out into the hallway as the jury deliberated and was overcome with emotion. He was convicted of manslaughter and sent to a juvenile detention facility.
Many years earlier, while attending a college tour, I received a phone call from my sister telling me that a childhood friend had been found murdered (only a few days earlier, I had buried my aunt due to a drug overdose). I was distraught, as I recalled so many memories with my friend. One time, we were playing cops & robbers–he climbed up a tree, and went up so high he was scared to come down. During the time that he passed away, I was a senior in high school, and had been expelled from at least twelve schools. I was raised by my mother, with little to no contact with my father. My story was not much different from my friends, and the other kids in Detroit. We were surrounded by violence, death, and the constant images of friends being hauled off to prison. The day that my friend was killed, I made a promise to myself that I would return to Detroit. My friends thought that I was losing my mind; they said, “why would you want to return to a place overrun with crime and no jobs?”
I will never forget her–Mrs. Adams. She took me in as one of her own and helped me financially clear at Oakwood University! Like many others, I was called retarded, crazy, big-dummy, and was told repeatedly that I was going to be like my “good-for-nothing” daddy. For the first time in my life, I had someone believe in me. She invested in me, and it changed my entire outlook on life. It made me want to do the same for others.
I will never ever forget what a kid asked me my first day doing Caught Up: “Is this for real?” He later told me how one day a mentor volunteered to take him on a job interview, he had dressed up and prepared for the interview, and was very excited at the prospect of getting a job. The excitement faded away as he waited longer and longer for his mentor to never show up. I saw the pain in his face as he told me he took off his dress clothes, put on his gang colors and went to a dangerous area in the city, where he subsequently committed a crime and was arrested.
Many people are so busy going about their daily lives that it takes something tragic to get their attention. Many times kids in Detroit are caught up in a life of violence, broken homes, and dysfunctional environments. It is Caught Up Mentoring’s goal to catch these kids up morally, academically and intellectually. Our program is held right now in 3 juvenile centers. We work with young people who will be soon released. We teach them how to write resumes, dress for interviews, financial literacy, resolve conflicts and much more.
Visit www.caughtup.org to volunteer, mentor, donate, or simply learn more about this program.
By: Toson Antwan Knight
Deputy District Manager for the City of Detroit