At a recent fundraiser for The Prodigal Son Foundation, Shirley Arrington sat off to the side and gazed at the young men and women buzzing in conversation.
Some of them were college fraternity brothers of her son Carlos. Others she had never met, but she’s sure they would have become fast friends. That’s because everyone in the room shared a love of seeing children under the radar succeed. Carlos did, too.
Seven years ago Arrington’s only child died unexpectedly at age 37. His heartbroken friends, many of them fraternity brothers, launched The Prodigal Son Foundation – a nonprofit organization that offers programs to at-risk students in the community – in Carlos’ memory.
It’s bittersweet, Arrington admitted, looking around at Carlos’ friends, each a reminder that life has marched on. But she said, “Something good came out of my son’s early demise. This would have been something that he would have wanted to do. He was a big dreamer. He had big dreams and big goals.”
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After graduating from N.C. Central University with a degree in recreation management, Carlos began mentoring disadvantaged children in Durham and offering his support to community youth programs geared toward helping students succeed.
It was in his blood, said Arrington, a retired school principal. His aunts are schoolteachers, too.
“He was raised in a family of educators,” she said. “He grew up around people who helped others.”
Friends step forward
His friends knew the best way to honor him would be to pick up where he left off.
“I felt like I had to do something. Like we had to do something,” said Leroy Wray, Carlos’ fraternity brother and the foundation’s president.
Arrington remembered being approached by a group of men after Carlos’ funeral.
“His friends were just so grief-stricken, and they wanted to do something,” she said. “They decided they would start a foundation dedicated to mentoring.”
Every few months they would update her on their progress toward launching the foundation.
“Each time we would meet, they would tell me what was being done, and I was astounded,” Arrington said.
The progress they made
Today, the organization runs the Sugar Creek 21st Century Community Learning Center, a free after-school program for qualifying students who attend Nathaniel Alexander Elementary School.
Four days a week, the nearly 75 children – who are recommended to the program by their teachers – come for academic enrichment and confidence-building exercises.
Through a grant by the U.S. Department of Education, they began Physical Activity Community Education, a program that promotes fun physical exercise and gives nutritional guidance to students.
They also sponsor 20 youths through mentoring programs throughout the community.
“We target low-income kids who need our support,” said Wray.
After school, Patricia Campbell, a retired elementary schoolteacher with 40 years experience, opens the door to the community learning center and welcomes the children in.
“This is my fourth year in the program,” said Campbell. “Over the years we’ve done basically the same thing: We’re trying to build self-esteem in these children and let them know they can do it.”
Arrington said she knows Carlos would be proud of the foundation’s success.
“What he was doing then, and what he wanted to continue to do, it continues. And it’s able to touch hundreds of others and help kids,” she said. “He would be so happy.”