Funding ending for youth program

Kevin Cherry showed much promise in 1997 when, at age 11, he was called a hero for warning neighbors in Charlotte's Seversville Apartments about a kitchen fire.

“Boy's alertness saves others in apartment complex,” read an Observer headline.

But things went badly in the years that followed, including a school bus fight that got him expelled, and arrests on drug and firearms charges. Then came the day his mother put his clothes on the porch and changed the door locks.

“If things kept going the way they were, I'd be dead or in prison,” he says.

What saved him, he says, is an Urban League program that gives dropouts and juvenile offenders a second chance through classes specialized to fit each student's need. In Cherry's case, the Urban Youth Empowerment Program helped him earn a GED and find steady work. Other students, such as those who've been in prison, take classes on changing their lifestyle and finding a job.

The program has had an 80 percent success rate in its three years, which adds to the Urban League's frustration that funding from the Department of Labor ends Aug. 15.

“Losing this program is, in many ways, like taking away a surrogate family for these young people,” says Patrick Graham, president of the Urban League of Central Carolinas.

“This is a population of people who made mistakes early in life, before turning 18. There has to be a way to get them back on track. It's a generation that will be with us for the next 60 years, so we can't write them off.”

Thirty-seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including U.S. 12th District Rep. Mel Watt, lobbied to persuade President Bush to extend support for the program. Almost 30 communities across the nation lost funding, which amounted to $420,000 annually in Charlotte.

Department of Labor officials say the money is going back into a federal fund for programs aiding youthful offenders, young parents and former prisoners.

“There are a range of valuable programs; so any time you close down one, you can make an argument that the money is going to something valuable,” Watt says. “It just seems a shame to close a program that helped raise employment … I can't imagine another program that served so many purposes.”

The league, fighting to save the program, is soliciting donations through its annual membership drive, which runs through Aug. 22. Should that fall short, it must dismantle the program, including the loss of up to seven jobs.

To date, 169 young people have signed up for the program in Charlotte, most of whom got their GEDs, found full-time jobs and went on to college, a vocational school or the military. Urban League officials credit their success to a unique approach, which creates “a life plan” for students with the help of teachers, counselors and volunteer mentors.

Kevin Cherry, 22, says it's like having an extended family of big brothers.

He signed up in 2007 after hearing the program paid an $8-a-day stipend for students who did community service. However, he quickly saw benefits in the classes, which include lessons on basic skills such how to resolve conflicts without fighting, how to open a bank account, and how to balance a checkbook.

Cherry is now applying for scholarship money in hopes of getting a business degree.

“I knew I could do better in life, and I needed something to keep me off the street,” says Cherry.

His mother, Loria Cherry, attended his July 28 GED diploma ceremony, and she admits cheering until she was hoarse. There was a time, she says, when it seemed he would never get this far in life.

“I told Kevin that there wasn't anything out there living on the streets but life and death, and he'd have to choose which one he wanted,” she says. “He chose wisely.”