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Prince Edward presents city's youth a royal challenge

At-risk youth in Baltimore city will have an opportunity to join an international network of young people in taking on a royal challenge to improve their lives by participating in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award-Young American's Challenge.

Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, the youngest child of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and seventh in line to the British throne, visited Tuesday with students of the Living Classrooms Foundation to announce that Baltimore would join 132 countries, and 20 states and Washington, D.C., in the program.

The prince, joined by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan, spent more than an hour touring the Fells Point campus, engaging in a conversation with nearly every student and instructor he encountered.

The prince didn't wince when greeted with a "Good morning" rather than the customary salutation "Your Royal Highness." Neither curtsies nor bows appeared either.

Prince Edward said in later remarks — he did not take questions from reporters, and rejected any submitted beforehand about the wedding of his nephew Prince William — that he was particularly impressed by how close-knit Baltimore was, and that it was an environment the Duke of Edinburgh's challenge could thrive in.

"I'm just so delighted by how you all really know each other," the prince told a group of students, staff and representatives of various youth organizations. "You know how you can fit together and work together, and if we can fit into that family … I think there's a very bright future in Baltimore."

The prince met students from the Crossroads School, a public charter middle school run by Living Classrooms, before touring the campus with teenagers and staff of the organization's Fresh Start program, a nine-month program for at-risk youth that offers carpentry skills training, academic remediation and job placement.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake said she was pleased to see students who have worked hard to turn their lives around receive recognition from royalty.

"They've decided that they want better for themselves and they have a place where they can do better, and I'm glad that it's being recognized," she said. "And for kids that have had some rough patches, I'm sure that this recognition by his royal highness will be a good boost for them."

The prince was invited to Baltimore by Todd Ruppert, president of T. Rowe Price International, who said that after he learned of the program at a dinner with the prince earlier this year, he "got the bug, and wanted to spread this as far and wide as I could."

Prince Edward seemed particularly interested in the personal journeys of Fresh Start students and staff, who did not shy away from telling the prince of the hardships, such as brushes with the juvenile justice system and other troubles, that brought them to the program.

"I never thought it would happen to me," said Jesse Garner, an instructor at Living Classrooms, of his conversation with the prince about how he returned as an instructor after completing the Fresh Start Program 22 years ago. "But he's a man, just like I am."

"It meant a lot because I worked so hard to get here," said Deonta Smith, 17, who started in the carpentry program five weeks ago. "I got to be a part of something big — just shows that you've got to think high."

The Fresh Start carpentry students also made the prince three "Fells Point chairs" made of cedar wood, a double-sized rocker and two children's chairs, which they presented to him to take home to his family.

"We took our time and made you this chair — and had fun making it," Quentin Weston,16, told Prince Edward, adding that there "wasn't any splinters or nothing." Weston and Prince Edward took a seat in the chair together to test the promise.

The prince said later in remarks that the city's youth represented what the Duke of Edinburgh's challenge was all about. "The response in Baltimore has been quite exceptional," he said.

"Our goal, very simply, is to try and reach as many young people, and to give them the life skills and experiences which can change their lives. ... If you can help us reach more young people with what we are doing, then that achieves what the program is doing."

The award was founded in 1956 by Prince Edward's father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. It began in the United States in 2007. It is a non-competitive, self-development program for youth ages 14 to 25 that challenges students in community service, physical fitness, special skills and adventurous journey. Students will pursue bronze, silver or gold awards in fulfilling requirements for each challenge.

"It was just a wonderful day to have our kids engage with the prince," said James Bond, CEO of the Living Classrooms Foundation. "It lifted them up and they realized that they're an important part of the future of this city."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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