The power of one: Fighting youth violence

Be Right project

He spoke to the people in the room with a knowing authority. Jeff Howard, ex-Columbia gang member, telling a cautionary tale he hopes has a profound impact on a roomful of teens and parents.

"I wanted to make a name for myself and I would do it by any means necessary," says Howard. "I would go to rival gang territory wearing colors to disrespect them just to show I was somebody. But, in actuality I was nobody. I was nobody."

Despite pleas to pull Howard out of that life, Darion Hutcherson watched the story play out, while Howard was at Eau Claire High School. The 29-year-old Hutcherson used to be a coach and mentor there. The former USC and SC State linebacker knows the story, having watched kids drift to the wrong side of the law. Not all of them get out like Howard, who used to put street cred ahead of common sense.

"We used to say it's only a 'hood thing. I used to live and die for my 'hood," says Howard. "But, that don't matter. My friends died. None of that matters when you get my age."

As director of the Be Right! Project, Darion Hutcherson often brings in speakers like Howard, to show teens the dangers of going down the wrong path. The Midlands outreach group helps at-risk teens who need to get back on track.

"It's really not that hard to convince a young person to do the right things," says Hutcherson. "You just have to present them with the information and show them the way."

Hutcherson has been doing that for years, mentoring teens at church, then as a teacher and coach at both Eau Claire and A.C. Flora high schools.

Teens like Steven Farmer, a Columbia 15-year-old who signed on to the Be Right! Project, are seeing big changes due to Hutcherson's guidance.

"Mr. Hutcherson has really changed my perception and my attitude toward teachers and a lot of people," says Farmer. "He's telling me to respect my mom.  I'm not there yet but I'm getting there with the respect thing."

A few months ago, Farmer had failing grades, daily problems at school, and he was running with the wrong crowd, experts say all the warning signs of a potential slip into the danger zone.

School discipline panels or juvenile justice send some teens to the program, while Farmer, knowing he needed some help asked his mother to sign him up.  It's paid off. He's in a new school, has all As and Bs, and a new outlook on his young life.

"I want to raise up to have a successful life," says Farmer. "I want to be up there someday like them boys to tell my story."

Darion Hutcherson says getting to that point is a hard journey for most of the young people he's mentored over the years, saying self-esteem is the biggest issue for at-risk teens.

"During that first meeting with them you can see their heads are down, they don't really believe in themselves," says Hutcherson. "They don't really have direction or have goals."

Mapping a course to improvement is more than just a motivational talk every now and then. Hutcherson says the game plan is about consistency. He's always checking on kids' grades, visiting schools and letting them know he's just a phone call away.

Teens also need an outlet. The Be Right! Project took their first crack at midnight basketball late last month. It's a tried and true method of keeping kids off the streets and putting them in an environment where adults and parents show they want to be involved.

Experts say midnight hoops by itself isn't enough.

"There are factors coming at them from all different directions in life," says Dr. Abigail Fagan of the USC Department of Criminal Justice. "So you really have an opportunity to change things around."

Dr. Fagan has studied teen deliquency for years and says the wide-ranging approach of the Be Right! Project is a good way, but, not the only way to tackle a problem some communities don't know how to fight.

"People don't always know what to do," says Dr. Fagan. "They hear about something, but don't really know what works."

Darion Hutcherson has found what works for him and a group of parents and young people. Teens like Steven Farmer just hope other teenagers can learn from what he now knows.

"I changed for a reason," says Farmer. "Whatever you're doing, do the opposite. You'll see a big difference."

Darion Hutcherson says the satisfaction of watching young people like Farmer change their lives is almost indescribable.

"I like to tell them (the students) they're like the end of a candle," says Hutcherson. "If we can get that candle lit, we've got that child."

Bible Way Church of Atlas Road and the Midlands Community Development Corporation teamed up to establish the Be Right! Project.

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Be Right! Project

Thank you so much for your story on the Be Right! Project. It was encouraging and insightful.

— Trayjeana Rogers, 34 Old Clayton Court

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