North Miami Senior High School student Deandre Chery recalls speaking to inmates at a trip to a prison with the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project.
“They weren’t necessarily bad people — they made bad choices,” said Chery. “I said that could have been me, one day. I said that won’t be me. I’m going to pursue my life.”
Chery — who has been accepted to Penn State and plans to study oncology — is one of 81 Wilson scholars who will benefit from the mentorship program’s 23rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Breakfast, held Monday.
The event, held at Jungle Island, convened more than 500 students and community leaders to fundraise for college scholarships for the graduating seniors.
Founded in 1993 by former Miami-Dade School Board member Frederica Wilson, the drop-out prevention program for at-risk minority youth serves 8,000 students ages 9-19 in Miami-Dade Schools, and has opened chapters in Pinellas and Duval counties. Students meet weekly with their mentors —from CEOs and college presidents to lawyers and firefighters — attend symposiums, visit college campuses and engage in community service. Wilson Scholars have participated in the program since ninth grade, display academic achievement and have attended a summer program at Miami Dade College.
The program’s success is clear: over 95 percent graduate from high school.
“It’s not a good world... for boys of color. We have good boys being shot by bad boys,” said Wilson, recalling how two Role Models were recently shot while playing basketball in a park. “The role models are shepherds and are leading the boys on a carefully chartered path to manhood.”
During his keynote speech, television actor Omari Hardwick — who stars in the show “Power” on Starz — asked the scholars how many did not have a father at home. About half raised their hands.
Then he read from a poem he wrote:
“You are the real make-believe come true… /We were born to be here for you... /I am 5000 wishes of bad gone good. You are the best of your neighborhood.”
He encouraged students to surround themselves with like-minded people, and to be in “constant pursuit to figure out your substance.”
Assuring them that success does not come overnight, Hardwick described how he was cut from the NFL in his early 20s and used to sleep in cars and pay rent with his poems before encountering stardom.
“You really have to start someplace,” he said. “You gotta help yourself answer the question: Who am I, whose am I, and what the heck do I want to be?”
But he warned the scholars that the world is a dangerous place for minority youth, and urged them to respect law enforcement.
“The hate you guys get will never stop,” he said. “My challenge to you always is never to be a hater, but to be a creator.”
Other speakers highlighted the violence. The Miami Herald has reported that at least 30 children and teenagers have been killed by gunfire in the last year.
“It’s very sad to see... day in and day out, the grieving that occurs in this community,” State Attorney Katherine Rundle said. “In contrast, we see these young men and their mentors, and we see hope. This is saving lives.”
North Miami Senior High School student Christopher Alcius, who plans to study electrical engineering, said his mentor had a profound impact on him, helping him academically and with career opportunities.
“He was kind of like my dad,” Alicus said. “I respected him.”
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Wilson, now a U.S. representative, said that 5000 Models is the only program of its kind in Miami-Dade for at-risk boys. More programs cater to girls, who are often perceived as more vulnerable, she explained.
“It’s very easy to have it [programs] for girls because people feel sorry for girls,” she said. “They don’t feel sorry for boys. That sensitivity is not there.”