Dr. LeDamien Myers had just returned home after a 30-hour shift interning at a Baltimore hospital, when he happened to catch a CNN report about the challenges confronting America's schools.
As the first male on the maternal side of his family to graduate from high school or college in several generations, Myers could definitely relate.
"My mother had me at 16, and she pushed me to excel," says Myers, who was born in Michigan and moved to Baltimore from California in 2008. "I wanted to mentor kids and somehow help them."
The physician eventually decided teaching was his true calling. Today, the 39-year-old educator oversees a biomedical sciences program at Western High School.
"Most people thought I was crazy to switch careers," says Myers, who is spending the summer working with middle-schoolers and running a science boot camp. "But I know this is what God wants me to do. I'm invested in my students and their success."
Myers is one of 10 local men recently honored with leadership awards and $10,000 grants from BMe — short for Black Male Engagement — a national network that supports black men in their efforts to build more caring, prosperous communities across the country.
"We're telling the true stories of authentic black men who are assets to society, who regularly do things to improve the lives of their families and communities," says Trabian Shorters, BMe's founder and CEO. "There's a false impression that these men don't exist."
Launched in 2011 as a pilot program under the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where Shorters is a former vice president, Miami-based BMe officially became a nonprofit in 2013.
With a $1.2 million annual budget funded in part by Knight, Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the Heinz Endowments and private donors, among others, BMe operates in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia. The program is expected to expand to Pittsburgh next year.
Nearly 300 men applied for the organization's latest round of leadership awards, and the Baltimore recipients were celebrated during a ceremony held last month at the Annie E. Casey Foundation downtown. The honorees were lauded for projects that include building coalitions, reducing gun violence amd youth-oriented endeavors, according to Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr., BMe's Baltimore community manager.
For instance, Chaz Arnett is a Harvard-educated attorney who represents youths who cannot afford legal counsel. Fagan Harris overcame a special- education stigma as a child to become a Rhodes scholar and social entrepreneur who seeks to mentor and cultivate homegrown talent.
Lance Lucas, once homeless, now heads Digit All Systems, a nonprofit that has provided computer programming courses to some 10,000 youngsters via partnerships with dozens of city schools. And Chris Wilson is an entrepreneur, college student and employment advocate who turned his life around after 16 years in the state penal system.
"I grew up seeing violence," says Wilson, 35, recalling a childhood in which he was shuttled between his grandmother in Washington and his mother in suburban Maryland. Over the years, a cousin was gunned down, his brother was shot and his mother was raped in front of him, he says. That same man beat him unconscious, Wilson says, and later stalked the family.
He started carrying a gun for protection. One day, he was confronted by a group of people who began making threats, Wilson says. Afraid of what they might do, he remembers "firing some shots and running." He later learned that one person had been fatally wounded.
At 17, Wilson was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and eventually sentenced to life in prison.
"I felt helpless," he says.
Yet while behind bars, he developed a master plan that included taking classes in Spanish and Italian, completing a certification in carpentry, and earning an associate's degree in sociology.
Along with therapy and prayer, which led Wilson to remorse and taking responsibility for his crime, he wrote in his journal and created a photo album in which he superimposed photos of himself in a variety of settings, telling himself that one day he'd be free.
"I would send updates to the judge," he says.
Wilson was paroled just over two years ago. Today, he's in charge of Community Workforce Development for the Greater Homewood Community Corp. in North Baltimore, owns a construction firm and a furniture restoration business and is a Ratcliffe entrepreneur fellow at the University of Baltimore's business school.
"I got a full ride," he says of his scholarship.
He plans to use his BMe money to expand the Barclay Business School, a "low-tech" incubator he founded to teach job skills to aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly ex-offenders.
"Everyone needs a chance," he says.