Seeing them in the teen uniform of hoodie, jeans and sneakers, you might easily peg them as what their principal calls kids we “sometimes think don’t count.”
You would be wrong – to their detriment and ours.
They represent what is – and what can be – right about young, black men, a demographic group too often defined by the ones who make news for all the wrong reasons instead of by the ones who quietly make a difference, like Nicholas Toomes and Corey Hill.
The Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts students did some of their best work outside of school, helping build a Habitat for Humanity house for a refugee family that will move in next month.
No pay. Just a chance to do something for someone else while learning a skill.
“I just wanted to give back to my community,” said Nicholas, a 10th-grader, who wants to enter the military after high school.
They admitted they get some razzing – sometimes joking, sometimes serious – from their friends about doing all of that work for no pay. But at an age when peer pressure is not always a benefit, influence can be a two-way street. With the proper support, teens like these can push others toward success and redefine the image we’ve saddled our young men with.
“You can turn it around. It’s how you carry yourself,” said Corey, who would like to study video game design in college.
The two spent every Thursday throughout the fall at the house in the Bailey-Delavan area installing drywall, painting and putting in doors and windows under the guidance of their Habitat mentors. In the process, they learned the types of skills schools have de-emphasized while pretending that every student will be a doctor, lawyer or engineer.
“They taught us as we went along,” said Nicholas.
“It was stuff I never did before,” added Corey. “If you need help fixing something at the house, I can fix it because I know how to do it now.”
But they learned a lot more than just how to hammer and paint; they also learned about responsibility, following rules and being a constructive force in their community.
All it takes is more adults willing to make the investment, and kids like these will prove that “they do count, and they can achieve,” Principal Jody Covington said at a small ceremony this week to recognize the pair and their parents.
They were offered the opportunity by school social worker Kim M. Jones, who had established a relationship with Habitat during her 15 years at Buffalo’s Alternative High School where she helped the district’s most at-risk kids, the ones too often given up on.
“When the odds are against you, I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m for you,’ ” said Jones, who maintained the relationship with Habitat after coming to Performing Arts last year.
She estimates a little over half of the young people we consider disposable – or worse – could make it if more adults did more to steer them in the right direction. That ratio applies in this case, as well, as she offered four students the chance to make this volunteer work one of their electives, only to see two of them break the rules and get the boot.
To its credit, Habitat didn’t paint with a broad brush. Site supervisor Padraic Murray vouched for Nicholas and Corey, and they proved to be such good workers that the organization wants to extend the relationship.
“We hope to keep them going for our next project in South Buffalo,” Murray said. “The best volunteers are ones who want to learn, and that describes them perfectly.”
It took about three weeks for the young men to get comfortable on the site, but once they came out of their shells, he said, they became “great assets.”
School psychologist Rubie McKelvey said teachers also have noticed a difference in their attitudes since Corey and Nicholas began giving something back – and since adults recognized they might have something to offer beyond the well-worn stereotype that stigmatizes their cohort in ways no other demographic group has to contend with.
These two helped build a house. But they also are building an alternative image of Buffalo’s young black males.