Nurturing Young People’s Potential

One Sunday this past June I decided to check out the farmers’ market in Olney. It was beastly hot and humid, not a good day for browsing, but I parked, gathered up my cane and my shopping bag and set forth over the bumpy, uneven ground that led to the market.

I’d only taken a few steps when a tall, slender, young man hurried over to me and offered his help. He extended his arm, and I gratefully took it. “Want me to carry your shopping bag?” he offered. “That would be great,” I said.

As we started to pass one of the booths, the woman inside smiled and said, “The young man you’re with is Justice Johnson, who’s part of our Project Change summer program for middle-school students from sixth to ninth grades. The young people not only perform community service, but for a modest fee ($50), they can attend an evening leadership training program at Sandy Spring Friends School.”

Later I learned that Project Change is a nonprofit organization that also sponsors community service clubs in six Montgomery County high schools. The students design and perform community projects throughout the school year. In addition, Project Change supports an after-school “Anti-bullying” program.

Justice escorted me through throngs of shoppers buying olive oil, bakery products, locally grown vegetables and handcrafted items. We stopped to watch a chef create ratatouille with extra ingredients I never would’ve thought of adding. Meanwhile, Justice had found a chair for me so that I would be comfortable during this part-class, part-comedy act.

When I finally returned to my car, I told him, “I hate to tell you goodbye.” Justice said, “Me, too.” I predict that young man will go far with his courtesy and helpfulness. I was glad to learn about Project Change and the support it gives to young people in leadership training.

It was also a pleasure to read an article in the Washington Post this past month about the Stephen T. Johns youth leadership program conducted by the Holocaust Museum. A student in Prince George’s County learned about it and was so inspired that she became a trainee at the museum. Besides the benefits from her experiences, it also gave her opportunities she might otherwise not have had.

A few blocks away from where I live, there is a newly opened foster home for eight boys, ages 12 to 18. It’s called Aunt Hattie’s Place. There really is an Aunt Hattie, who is actually Dr. Hattie Washington, a remarkable woman, who is one of the most inspiring people I know.

Washington’s house was bequeathed to her by Robert H. Hill, who was known in Sandy Spring, Md., as “Uncle Bob, a friend to many young people and local benefactor. She has spent years developing a plan for Aunt Hattie’s Place, obtaining a foster group home license and raising the funds for having extensive additions to her home completed. She has interviewed a number of youths and has finally selected the eight who will become “Aunt Hattie’s Boys.”

Washington’s hope is that the nurturing environment, the personal interest that will be given each boy, and the encouragement they will receive will enable every one of them to finish high school and attend college. Besides fulfilling these expectations, Aunt Hattie’s boys will always have a warm and loving home waiting for them.

I heartily support these and other organizations that provide leadership training. Young people at risk need positive reinforcement and opportunities to see that better choices for themselves are available. My belief in the value of leadership training of youths is best summed up in the mission statement of PBS — “Supporting Possibilities.”