Dozens of teenagers listened intently to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings on Monday morning at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club as he gave a speech encouraging them to take charge of their destinies.
"You have been chosen," he told them. "Whatever it is that you believe is stopping you from being all you can be, you need to change that right now."
Cummings' talk was part of a citizenship tour by the National Urban Squash & Education Association, an organization that couples intensive academic tutoring with the indoor racquet sport squash.
The event was one of several stops on an eight-day athletic and academic journey from New York to Washington, D.C., for 21 high school and college squash players — two of whom are from Baltimore — selected through a competitive application process. The tour, in its second year, is aimed to encourage civic engagement and public service.
SquashWise the local youth program that hosted the tour stop, provides 60 students from grades six through 12 with academic, social and athletic guidance, according to program director Matt Skarzynski.
"We expose them to a whole host of opportunities that most students in Baltimore City Public Schools aren't going to have, whether it's playing squash or going out for service learning events or traveling up and down the East Coast as part of the citizenship tour," Skarzynski said.
One of those opportunities was seeing Cummings, who encouraged students to stay focused on their goals and tune out naysayers.
"You must have confidence in your competence," he said. "Most people who are hating on you, they are not worried about where you are. They're worried about where you're going."
The teens laughed when Cummings told them how "the prettiest girl in the world" broke his heart when he was younger and how it taught him to be thankful for painful lessons.
"Every time something bad happens to me, I don't ask the question, 'Why did it happen to me?'" he said. "The question I ask is, 'Why did it happen for me?'"
After the event, Cummings said he is happy to advocate for an institution that mirrors the support he received as a young man.
"When I look at them, I am reminded of my own life. People came along, like the people who are in charge of SquashWise, that helped me," he said.
Johnny Hayes, 17, a rising high school senior from San Diego, California, said he was inspired by Cummings' talk.
"Many of us are low-income, many of us are immigrants. We kind of grow up being told we're on this other track, we're not as good, we don't have that kind of potential. He just told us to value everything we have," he said.
Nytiece Powell, 17, a citizenship tour participant from West Baltimore, said part of Cummings' discussion stuck with him.
"He was talking about how you should not just help yourself, you should also help others. It might come back and help you," said Powell, who will be a freshman at Frostburg State University this fall.
Wengel Kifle, 18, a rising high school senior from New Haven, Connecticut, said Cummings reminded her to compete with herself, not others.
"You can tell that he really cares about youth. It was really meaningful," she said.
Cummings said programs like SquashWise are more important than ever in light of the turmoil that hit the city after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died in police custody in April.
"To know that there's an organization like this that truly cares about young people, that introduces them to a sport and at the same time provides them with the tutoring and the guidance to walk into their destiny, that's a win-win-win situation," he said. "The child they save today will be a better father or mother tomorrow."
Cummings told the teens that they have a chance to improve their nation.
"Our country is slowly but surely moving — and I've seen it over and over again in many instances in government — toward a culture of mediocrity. And the question is whether you all come back and get it toward excellence," he said. "You can be the light."