By Carol Longoria
the Durham VOICE
Life was not always easy in the Johnson household. Destin Johnson, the youngest of four children, started life in relative stability for the first eight to ten years. Then his family was hit hard with a series of events — job loss, substance addiction, parents’ separation, and people moving in and out of the home.
”When it comes to graduation rates, almost 45 percent of black males do not finish high school in four years,” according to a Durham News article from 2010.
The odds were stacked against Destin making it hard for his sister, Azmen, to return to school at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Azmen said that because their parents were “off and on,” it added to her reluctance to return to school.
“This summer camp was different,” Azmen said, “and I wanted my baby brother to be a part of it.”
Azmen brought Destin to the last week of camp to check it out. The next summer Destin joined the seven-week program.
“I was relieved knowing that Destin would be connected with Urban Hope because I knew they loved him and they would take care of him,” Azmen said. Urban Hope turned out to be more than a summer camp program, offering year-round discipleship and encouragement for teens to go to college.
Price said, “On my first visit to Durham, there was a drive-by-shooting,” while he was taking a group of youth to the movies. “I was struck by the fact that nothing really happened.” The group talked about it a little and then went to the movies anyway. “I was struck by the injustice,” Price said. From that moment Price knew he was meant to work in Durham.
Knowing many children have an absence of strong male role models, Price pursued mentoring opportunities with several of the young men at Urban Hope. Destin was one of those young men. Price spent much time with Destin, teaching him how to grow spiritually.
“I can share anything with Timothy,” Destin said. “I know it won’t go nowhere.” The two developed a strong friendship.
Destin said of Price, “I knew this guy straight out of school. Then he was dating and got married. Now he’s a daddy and I still can’t imagine it.”
Price acknowledged the change in Destin fills him with pride.
Price said, “Just a week ago I saw Destin on stage giving a speech for student government elections at Central.” He said it has been exciting to see Destin mature into a confident young man.
In high school Destin participated in the Young Leaders Group through Urban Hope, an initiative that fosters college preparation through community service and college visits.
Dan Keegan, staff member at Urban Hope, said,“When Destin first arrived at Urban Hope he was overwhelmed with life circumstances – not sure how to navigate.” Keegan compared Destin to someone who was just learning to swim, just barely keeping his head above water. Through his involvement with the Young Leaders Group, Destin learned how to swim. He gave business proposals and led groups. Destin gained the confidence to try new things.
Part of the summer camp program teaches entrepreneurship. “The entrepreneurship component offers the teenagers business skills, training and an opportunity to experience many of the different aspects of operating their own for-profit small business,” according to the Urban Hope website.
Bahari Harris, Urban Hope founder, said, “We want to teach teens to be producers not just consumers.” Each camper must present his/her business ideas in a public speaking format. Harris said that this is one way campers, like Destin, develop life skills.
Azmen said, “All of the Urban Hope counselors are either currently college students or hold a degree. There is a clear expectation that the kids that attend will go to college.” She said that doors are open for people that obtain their degree.
“If you don’t have your degree, you don’t have those doors opened,” Azmen said.
Urban Hope also assists students in finding a university that will meet the student’s needs. Keegan said that Page Cvelich works tirelessly with students to help them understand college costs, financial aid, and the application process.
Azmen said about Destin, “I wasn’t there to stay on him about his college applications.” Azmen said, “Page was on it,” and without her being ‘hands on’ the ball would have been dropped.
“It takes a village,” Cvelich said of her part at Urban Hope. Each team member plays an important role, filling a need as the need arises. Cvelich said that this is what being in a community is about. Now that Destin is in college, a new set of mentors and relationships are developing to push him through the next steps.
Jason Dorsette, director of the Centennial Scholars Program and former Urban Hope Camp Counselor, said, “Before 2009 less than 40 percent of all African-American males entering NCCU graduated.” Dorsette targets young men starting their freshman year, and the school intentionally places the scholars in the same dorm.
“It’s a brotherhood that rewards positive behavior,” Dorsette said. Any scholar obtaining a 3.5 GPA or higher for the semester, receives a book voucher to defray the cost of textbooks. The program started with 57 incoming freshmen in 2009 and has grown to 518 young men.
The inaugural class will be graduating this year with 98 percent of the original group entering their senior year of college. The Centennial Scholars Program will be hosting a PUSH symposium later this semester to foster educational attainment for minority males. Destin is now part of this group and is provided daily tutoring help through this program.
Azmen said that while no one can control where he starts in life, it is comforting to know there is help along the way. “Sometimes we spend so much time on our own little island that we forget God is orchestrating things around us,” Azmen said. This is a sentiment that was echoed through each of the people that have touched Destin’s life. This web of people have become more than mentors.
“Urban Hope is family,” Destin said, and he still sees many of them on a regular basis.
Destin says he recognizes the gift he has been given and plans to interview as a camp counselor at Urban Hope to continue to give back.
Harris said, “This is exactly what we hope for.” That kids going through the program return to give back to their community.