YouthBuild grads get a new start
By Chris Day
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Kjuaan Gibbs, 18, used his long arms to push himself in his wheelchair to a spot by the podium. Holding a microphone in his right hand, he began telling the tragic story of how at an early age he dropped out of school.
Gibbs was speaking at River City Community Development Corp.’s YouthBuild commencement Wednesday night. About 100 people, most of them family members, attended the hour-long ceremony in the auditorium at Museum of the Albemarle.
YouthBuild is a national non-profit program that provides education, counseling and job skills to unemployed young adults who are in most instances, but not exclusively, school dropouts.
Gibbs, who is originally from Charleston, South Carolina, was joined Wednesday by at least 11 other graduates in accepting their General Educational Development diplomas. One graduate earned his high school diploma, and other graduates were presented certificates for mastering carpentry and landscaping skills, plus other skill certificates.
Gibbs said he took to a life in the streets at an early age and probably did more before he was 16 than most adults will in a lifetime.
“I looked up to the neighborhood dope man,” Gibbs said.
He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and began a life selling drugs and stealing cars, Gibbs told the audience.
On Aug. 17, 2016, the streets turned on him. That was the day his “home boy” shot him twice in the stomach and left him for dead, he told the silent audience. Gibbs, who now requires the use of a wheelchair, moved to Elizabeth City, where learned about the YouthBuild program.
“God was showing me a sign,” he said. “I was meant to do better than that.”
Shyazia Britt, 18, who also earned her high school equivalency diploma, told the audience that at one point in her life she was an “out of control teenager” who was “in and out of trouble.”
She dropped out of school at 17 while caring for her newborn son. She was stressed trying to raise a child plus attend school, and dropping out seemed her best option, Britt said.
“I thought that was my only choice at the time,” she said.
Soon after she found an application for YouthBuild and enrolled.
“I made a promise to my son that he would want for nothing,” she said. The young mother received a round of applause when she announced that in May she had passed her GED exam.
Giving the evening’s commencement address was Tommy McClam, a YouthBuild mentoring coach who traveled from his home in Buffalo, New York, to attend the ceremony.
McClam, who also is a pastor, briefly discussed his childhood in Buffalo.
He grew up in a poor family in a poor neighborhood and attended public schools, he said. Early in his life he made some choices that placed a few hurdles in his path. He overcame those hurdles and he congratulated the graduates for overcoming the obstacles that were once before them.
“To the YouthBuild graduates, I want to commend you for achieving those first hurdles,” he said.
McClam, who had earlier said that his primary interest in school was playing basketball, spoke of four people who had a profound influence on his life. One of them was his junior high math teacher and basketball coach.
Once when McClam failed an exam, the coach benched him and wouldn’t allow him to play in a game, McClam said.
“Son, I’m holding you back because I want you to move forward,” the coach told him, McClam said.
“Get people in your life that will push you beyond yourself,” he told the graduates. “Find your passion and get someone to push you into your passion.”
Also speaking briefly at Wednesday’s ceremony were Jeff Dixon, chairman of the Pasquotank County commissioners; Mayor Bettie Parker, Catherine Edmonds, superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools and Gwen Saunders, deputy chief of staff to the Chancellor’s Office at Elizabeth City State University.
Lenora Jarvis-Mackey, director of YouthBuild and president and CEO of River City CDC, also addressed the graduates.
“You possess the power within to live wonderful and magnificent lives,” she told them. “Only you are the master of your fate.”
McClam concluded his earlier speech with one more bit of advice for the graduates. He told them that, while it’s important that they learn from their mistakes, there will be moments in their lives when they can learn from the mistakes of others.
“The early bird catches the worm,” he said. “But the second mouse gets the cheese.”