Gentlemen’s Agreement youth dig in for their community

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The overcast sky didn’t stop members of a Gentlemen’s Agreement pilot program from grabbing shovels and rakes to volunteer Tuesday at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum.

“When Gentlemen’s Agreement was conceived, we wanted to create the 21st-century version of a village that wraps itself around these guys and throws everything into helping them,” said the Rev. Maurice Barnes, leader of the program. “Well, we also wanted to have the guys give back to a community that has invested so much into them and their future. That is a responsibility they have.”

Similar to the Gentlemen’s Agreement high school participants, the community-led program mixes monthly meetings and discussions with volunteer opportunities and field trips in order to build goal-oriented and community-minded young men. Forest Hills Middle School teacher Ken Fontenot, who has led the pilot program for the Gentlemen’s Agreement with his sixth graders, said he’s been amazed with the changes he’s seen since launching the program in February.

“We believe heavily in exposing them to things they’ve never seen and taking them to places they’ve never been,” Fontenot said. “For instance, the trip to N.C. Central University was awesome because it changed their idea of school. Right now, their concept of school is based on elementary, middle and high school, but in college, they are autonomous and independent with a huge cafeteria and sports fields and a social life.

“A lot of black men will not transition from high school to college, but going to N.C. Central showed them so many more possibilities.”

When it came time to put together a volunteer project for the preteens, Fontenot called up Roundhouse Museum Executive Director Bill Myers.

“The Roundhouse is not open, however the grounds are always there for people to see and I always want to make them as attractive as possible, so anything they could do as far as pulling up weeds and straightening the borders would be greatly
appreciated,” Myers said. “They showed up and are just doing a marvelous job. I’m very pleased to have them.”

Barnes said he hopes to expand the middle school component of the Gentlemen’s Agreement to the rest of the district in the fall.

“The idea is that Forest Hills would design a template of sorts, then we would replicate that at other middle schools. It would look a little different at each school, but there would be some of the same components,” Barnes said. “Our goal is to not only expose these guys to new things, but to help them see themselves in a different life, improving their sense of self-worth and value. The ability to not only dream, but see themselves reaching those dreams is critically important.”

Barnes said eventually he’d like to have programs for elementary, middle and high school students to “create a generation of leaders.”

“We want them to start in the Gentlemen’s Agreement program in elementary school and grow with it to have a transformative effect on their lives,” Barnes said. “And that transformative effect isn’t only on their lives, but the lives of their families and others in the community. That is what we seek to do.”

After some time pulling weeds, collecting downed branches and removing a bush, the boys ate pizza and enjoyed some time laughing with one another.

“These are young middle school boys who are doing something good in the community,” Myers said. “It is always publicized when they get in trouble, but I love opportunities like this when they are doing something that is good. We need more like this in Wilson.”