By Lindsay Ruebens
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
When a 9-year-old boy asked Geneva Melton if he could come visit her when he became a millionaire, she knew she was doing something right.
The 42-year-old Durham native has named her community program, “It Takes a Village Workforce.” And Melton doesn’t take that name lightly—she knows what it takes to raise a child.
Melton was a teenage mother who dropped out of high school and eventually became involved with drugs. She gave birth to seven children. One died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Another died of leukemia just seven years ago at age 15.
But ultimately, Melton’s story is not one of tragedy and despair. It’s one of hope.
“My life is a book,” she said. In fact, she’s almost finished writing her autobiography about her tumultuous life and expects to finish her manuscript before the end of this year. It’s titled, “There Is a God.”
Everything changed for Melton when one of her sons, Quentin, lost his battle against leukemia.
“I look at life totally different now,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Before he died, he told his mom he wanted someone to help the Northeast Central Durham community rise above the crime, violence and poverty that many of its residents face.
So Melton started with what she calls People Helping People folders—her own creation of manila folders she gave to senior citizens in different neighborhoods to help them understand things like housing bills and medical forms. After losing her job, she decided to go back to school and will earn her GED this May.
But tragedy struck Melton and her family once again in 2008 when one of her grandsons, DeMarcus, died in a car accident at age 9—a brutal reminder for Melton of the value of human life.
The memories of both DeMarcus and Quentin compelled her to do something more for her community. In particular, she wanted to reach out to the youth of Durham.
Drawing from her past, Melton decided last summer that she wanted to feed some deserving kids free breakfast and lunch while they were out of school. Durham Public Schools was donating food for kids as a part of its Food and Nutrition Program.
In eastern Durham where she grew up, Melton used to go to the neighborhood community center as a child where she remembers a lady giving free breakfast and lunch to her and a bunch of other kids.
“We were given a place to belong—we were given a place to be a kid,” she said. “I want to give kids memories like I was able to hold onto so they can have something positive.”
So she called several churches to ask for space to host the kids, but was consistently rejected. Refusing to give up, Melton realized she could use her mother’s old house on Ashe Street, which was empty at the time.
“Every room was bare and the walls needed painting… and there are still things that need to be done,” Melton said. “We envisioned one room and thought we’d only need the living room.”
After passing out a few fliers to families in the area and telling some folks about her project, Melton found herself feeding 20 kids on the first day.
They kept coming back, and before she knew it, she had 40 regulars – ages ranging from 4 to 17 – and a waiting list.
“We were bursting at the seams,” Melton said. “Just imagine this old house, and you’ve got kids in every room.”
From there, it morphed into a free summer day camp that Melton now calls the “It Takes a Village Workforce.”
The day camp is not a non-profit organization—funds come from Melton herself and donations. For almost the past year, Melton has been unemployed. But that’s not stopping her.
She rounded up volunteers all summer to work with the kids from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each child was assigned to a certain room by age group and gender. The kids ate, made crafts, wrote, played games, and even took field trips to local parks and businesses. All of the field trips were on foot since the program doesn’t have any transportation.
The young men learned to look up to volunteer Robert Jiggetts, who was known as Mr. Kent. Jiggetts also had a turning point in his life during which he rediscovered his faith and vowed to change.
“It’s my way of giving back because I don’t want to see a kid go through what I’ve been through,” he said.
Jiggetts, 40, lost his father at age 15 and took to the street life. After recently spending four years in jail for various crimes, he says he wants to teach other young men to stay in school and avoid making the same mistakes he did. Jiggetts said he thanks God for prison, where he set himself straight and prayed for change.
“I thought I was a man before, but really, I was fooling myself,” he said.
Jiggetts said several of the boys at the day camp didn’t have a father figure and were at first resistant to his authority.
“At first they hated me, but then they loved me to death,” he said. “You show them love and respect, and they’ll love and respect you. That’s all it takes.”
Jiggetts said he enjoys writing, and before he would take the boys outside to play basketball, he’d have them do a short writing assignment.
“It’s alright to have fun, but let’s learn something in the process,” he said. “You’ve got to meet them halfway.”
And now that the kids have been back to school for a semester, Melton said she doesn’t want to wait until the summer to take kids in again. By the end of February, she said she hopes to reopen her mother’s house for an after school program.
“If we don’t do something to protect our kids, we lose them,” Melton said.
She said she wants to continue her services for free, but may ask parents for a small fee if they can afford it.
Melton says staying positive can be difficult, especially for kids who come from broken homes. But she’s optimistic that she’s planting seeds of respect and love for Durham’s future generations.
“This is something Quentin said he wanted done,” she said. “I’ve got to complete what he started.”