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Helping sons led to helping others

The Baltimore Sun

Lawrence E. "Larry" Walker, Sr., 50, had always been involved in the schools his two sons attended, but when they entered high school he and other fathers began to see the need to mentor African-American boys there. Last spring, he won the first Comcast Parent Involvement Matters Award, given by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I moved to Columbia at age 15 from the rough urban streets of Pittsburgh to live with my Aunt Marie and Uncle Haywood; they could only imagine the impact it would have on life. After graduating from Wilde Lake High School and Southern University, I took a job in Tampa, Fla., where I fell in love with a beautiful schoolteacher named Alfreda Reed. Alfreda is an ESOL teacher at Stevens Forest Elementary School in the county. ... Both sons graduated in spring '08: Brandon (18) from Mt. Hebron High School, is a freshman at Hampton University, and Lawrence (22) who finished Mt. Hebron in 2004 graduated from University of Maryland College Park.

After a great 24-year career in sales and marketing, I decided to answer the call to join the clergy, for the past three years serving as a full-time pastor at Celebration Church in Columbia, where we have been members for over 22 years.

What experience prompted you to get more involved in your sons' school and begin mentoring young men at Mt. Hebron High?

When my oldest son began school in K-3 my wife insisted that I be involved in the education process by at least attending parent conferences and visiting classes during American Education Week. Her early coaching and encouragement gave me confidence, as I began to see the difference my presence made for my boys.

In the late '80s and early '90s I led a mentor program for teenage boys through my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma. I stopped to focus on my own young sons. Fast forward to 2004 when a white female student at Mt. Hebron accused three African-American male students of rape, causing the boys to spend six days in jail. The community was exposed to racial tension until the accuser recanted her story.

During a talk with my oldest son he encouraged me to get involved so I began discussions with other fathers from our Parents of African-American Students (P.A.A.S.) organization and we decided to implement a mentor program. The program goal was to provide experiences for African-American males to develop the necessary skills, abilities and attitudes for self-development, respect, accountability, academic and career achievement.

Describe what you and other fathers do each Saturday morning.

The fathers created a biography which was made available for the boys to select a mentor. Each dad had two or three boys to develop a relationship with, during our biweekly sessions and "check-in" phone calls. The sessions consisted of topical group discussions on relevant issues like identifying your purpose, study skills and test preparation, finding answers when faced with difficult decisions, relationships, career development, money management, and healthy habits. The students led many presentations, we incorporated group activities for team building, guest presenters, and we would wrap up in the gym with basketball.

Could you describe some of the positive changes in the boys who took part in the mentoring?

Wow! We experienced a number of positive changes. The main and most lasting is the close relationship the guys developed with one another and with the mentors. Not to mention the strong lasting relationships built between the men. This built their confidence and desire to keep giving back. Boys who didn't have fathers at home now had a man they could talk to about male issues and get real answers and direction. Many of the guys talk to their mentors about issues they didn't know how to share with their parents. One of my mentees called me from college in Louisiana last year to tell me how good he was doing and to thank me. There is no greater accomplishment then when a teenager thanks you for caring enough to be involved in his life.

What do you think would improve parent involvement in schools in Maryland?

State and local government should provide incentives for businesses that encourage employees to spend four to eight hours per month in a school. This would afford more parents the opportunity to be involved in their child's school. As more principals reach out to develop relationships with parents and invite or "ask" them to get involved with a specific task based on the "known" interest or skill set, I believe more parents will get involved. I hear parents all the time say they feel out of place in school or don't know what they could do to help.

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