First of all, thank you to everyone who has supported City ACES emotionally, prayerfully, financially, or any other “-lly” I may have left off. Thanks to everyone who I have connected with over the course of the journey, and offered encouragement via phone calls, emails, texts, or face-to-face.
Special thanks go out to the entire City ACES crew (Josh, Tyrell, Sarah, Devin, Tim, Cornell, Leonce, Yohance, David)…I’m humbled and proud to be in the battle with you all. This truly is a work of many, and without you guys, City ACES would be just another organization, with a fancy name, having no impact. I am acutely aware of it, and believe me, I don’t take it for granted!
To lay the scene on September 22nd, it should be understood that City ACES was coming to Philadelphia to kick of our 2009-2010, 10 city “Dream Makers and Dream Breakers” Tour, and Michael Vick was our keynote speaker. As such, the school was a media circus. I’m talking about a zoo.
Every news channel was there: ESPN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, WPVL…stations I had never even heard of. Vans and cameras everywhere.
Step up in the school at about 7:30 am to begin the setup. At about 8:30 BET (Black Entertainment Television) shows up, and I conduct a 20 minute interview on why I chose Mike to be a speaker at the school (Mike had called me, and wanted me in his documentary, following his comeback journey, airing on the aforementioned BET).
I finish the shoot with them, and there’s 15 minutes until go time. BET producer comes running up while I’m directing traffic… “Hurry, Mike is about to come in, and we need to get the shot of you two meeting before the show”. Hustle back to the room where they’re recording, and Mike shows up a few minutes later, for the meet and greet. Say hello to him and his fiancé, thank him for coming, remind him of the lives he’s about to change, and head back to the auditorium to tie up any loose ends. 10 minutes to go. I get dragged out by ESPN radio to talk about the program. Trying to remind everyone that the kids really are the focus of why we’re here. Vick is only a part of the production.
Five minutes until go time. Aaahh…music to my ears. Literally, music to my ears, as the DJ is playing all the jams, and the students are getting hype. Lovin’ the call and response: “PEPPER MIDDLE SCHOOL!! ARE Y’ALL IN THE BUILDING?! TALK TO ME!!” ….and the crowd goes wild. DJ announces “2 minutes until we roll”. I respond with: “I’m ready whenever you are”. Light’s, camera, action.
The room goes black, and we play the video of my friend Keion Morgan, asking “who’s next”? Another powerful video. Please watch below:
The kids are into it. The buzz is in the air for real. You just knew that this morning was going to be special. Keep in mind, the kids didn’t know Vick was in the building, or even coming. To say they got hype would be an understatement. In fact, if I put it in words I would just cheapen it. Watch for yourselves below:
Turn my swag oooonnnnnn….alriiiiiigght! Mike killed the speech, telling the kids to learn from his mistakes, and to take education seriously from day one. He went on to tell them to avoid those who consistently push you in directions that can only lead to trouble, and cling to those who are there to help. I’m really not doing his talk justice, but trust me, it was good.
Next, in honor of my childhood idol, we had a Michael Jackson dance off, and believe me, some of these kids have skills that I only have in limited supply.
Next up in the lineup is PHILADELPHIA’S NEXT DA!!! Mr. Seth Williams. Seth was such a patient guest, because we started a lot later than planned, and he is a busy man, in the heat of a campaign season. Yet, he waited for us. Mr. Williams, thanks again. He gave a stirring speech on how he studied hard as a kid, and sometimes got teased for it. Unfortunately, many of these same friends from years ago are dead or in jail. As Philadelphia’s DA, he told the kids “I only want to see you in court if you are a doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer, and you are there to testify for someone else”. Strong words. If you’re in Philadelphia, this is the man you should vote for when the election rolls around.
High school marching band up next. Another excellent set, and then Miss Carlisha Williams takes the stage. I’m telling you right now, Carlisha is going to be a star someday. Maybe I should say “a bigger star”, because she has already been Ms. Black Oklahoma, and a contestant in Ms. Black America. She also leads her own nonprofit, Women Empowering Nations, but at my request agreed to speak at the City ACES show. She was arguably one of our best speakers, and spoke specifically to the girls in the audience about education and self worth. Her speech involved a student helper from the audience, and a $50 bill. The lesson was that whether a $50 was crisp, or it was crumpled and stepped on (as Carlisha did onstage to her $50), the value is still the same. The same is true of the students. All of them have value. All of them…VALUABLE. At the end of her presentation, she gave the $50 to her student helper, and the place exploded.
Leonce Crump, a mainstay of City ACES, closed us out with his talk on “Dream Makers and Dream Breakers”. The place is silent as he spoke. All eyes on him. To say he hit a homerun would be an understatement. That’s why Leo is the closer, because he comes in and delivers the knock out blow.
You know how you go to an event, and some speakers are good, others are so-so, and some are just plain terrible? Not so on September 22nd. ALL the speakers were on point, and each one led nicely into the next.
Our final act was presenting the essay contest winners.
We’ve got the oversized checks, we’ve the City ACES staff on stage, and we’ve got the principals of the school. I read over 1,000 essays the week before, and I just had to tell the entire school to give themselves a round of applause, because there were so many great responses. Unfortunately, I could only pick 3 winners.
We call out the third place winner, and I hear a scream as the young man jumps up. He’s besides him with joy, and the rest of the school seems genuinely happy for him. He comes up, and receives his $50 third place prize. Press corp is snapping away, just like the paparazzi. We call the second place winner, and the same response as he yells and comes sprinting to the stage. Cameras flashing. There’s an interesting dynamic at play, because these kids are fighting to keep their cool, calm composure, but at the same time, there is an intense burst of relief, pride, and energy that overflows when they have achieved. When they were on stage, they appeared to be on the verge of tears. I’m getting a little emotional just recalling.
We award the second place prize of $100. It’s time to announce the 1st place winner, and the choice was a no brainer. I’m serious, this girl is a genius. The way she wrote, and the way she captured and broke down complex ideas was astounding to me and the rest of the committee. She stated in her essay that she wanted to go to Yale and major in journalism and minor in performing arts. She also said that she would love to be an author and a poet, and it was easy to see, because reading her essay was like listening to smooth jazz. Amazing! If that wasn’t enough, she complained about the Mayor shutting down libraries and public swimming pools in the inner city! And SHE’S ONLY IN THE 6TH GRADE!!!!
So anyway, as I read her essay over the weekend, my mind had pictured a full fledged 5’5, 5’6, 5’7 young lady (I know that’s silly, but that’s how I had conceptualized her because I was so impressed by her writing). I call out her name, and I hear another shriek, and then this TINY little girl is in an all-out sprint to the stage. I’m talking tiny. I’m talking 3’5…4 feet tops. As she comes running up the stage steps, I just instinctively stretch open my arms to hug her. She clung to me like I was a parent who she would never see again. I mean, she hugged me so hard, and wouldn’t let go. The entire auditorium by now was on their feet screaming and clapping. More pictures, and the girl is looking like she’s going to burst from all the emotion, as her principal, Ms. Yolanda Armstrong, winks at her and beams with pride.
I give the final thanks, and the DJ ends the program by looping part of the Drake “Successful” song…I know you’ve heard it, “I just wanna be, I just wanna be successful…I just wanna be, I just wanna be successful”. Looped those lines over and over. Those were the last words that were ringing in those kids ears as the show ended. But they DIDN’T want to leave! I turn to the left and see a crowd of young men swarming the male speakers, then I turn to the right, and I see a crowd of girls swarming Carlisha. Those kids didn’t want the moment to end, but alas, the principal eventually had to herd them off to lunch as Drake played on. “I just wanna be, I just wanna be successful…I just wanna be, I just wanna be successful…”
Some of you ask me, why I don’t simply pursue the money, live life as a baller, and retire early. Well, I will, as soon as you can put a price on the emotion and feeling that I had at that moment, and really throughout the show, knowing that lives had forever been changed. For me, those moments can never be bought, and as I said in an earlier post, I feel close to God as the show unfolds, and I see the vision and the dream crystallized. Money is great, and I enjoy having it, but it isn’t everything…in fact, it’s just a tool to do what’s really important, which is helping others.
Speaking of money, if you haven’t already, please join the war by donating to City ACES, because we’re going coast to coast, and could use all the financial support we can get (www.cityaces.org/contribute).
Now that the show is over, the organization we partnered with is poised to take over, and continue to stoke the fire we started. Junior Achievement (http://www.ja.org/), who came to my middle school as a kid, will now do the same for these kids in Philly, and will bring in local professional leaders in the community on a weekly/biweekly basis to keep the dream alive. We’re going to do this. Believe it.
I sign off with a conversation I had with a teary eyed principal as we prepared to leave the building. She said the student who had won the third place essay (let’s call him Jimmy, to protect his identity) was in the hallway crying after the event, and that they had to calm him down, because he was so happy he had won, and achieved something. She said the child was a genius who really didn’t apply himself because he saw no reason to. She said everyone knew he was either going to Homestead (prison), or to Harvard. There was no in-between. She said on September 22nd, after our show, she had seen a glow in him that she had never seen before, and she now knew that he was going to make it. So Harvard, make room, because he’s coming through in another 5 or 6 years!
You know what? I’ll let you read part of his essay regarding why education is important:
I **Jimmy** do think education is important, and yes I want to go to college. Education would enhance my life, because unlike others, I want to be well educated, and want to get somewhere in life. Education to me is like money…I can’t get anywhere without it.
Before my grandpop died, he always told me that if I want the money, cars, and clothes (***note the Drake reference, LOL***) I would have to at least go to college. My goal is to go to college and be a representative for my family, and for someone to be proud of what I did for once. Some say money is a man’s dream, but actually college is. I’m going to college to be a music artist, just like my grandpop, “Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.” He inspired me a lot. My dad tells me every day not to be like him and make his mistakes, like not going to college. People know me as funny and goofy, but this is coming from the bottom of my heart. I really want to go to college. This in not for the money, it’s for everything.
…and, a follow up email from the principal:
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the time, effort, and patience that you and your group put forth on behalf of Pepper Middle School. My students are still talking about it. Assemblies such as the one we had today sends the message that with a lot of hard work and the right people pushing you forward , anything is possible! Today my students believed it. ***Jimmy*** will be proof of that. He was at the right place, at the right time, and heard the message. I hold great hope for him. Today made me remember why I became an educator.
Thanks again, Frank.
This is why I do what I do. Pictures going up as soon as the photographer gets them to me. The facebook City ACES group can be found at: (http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=140636014784). Please join.
Next stop is Washington DC, October 27th. The fight for the kid’s minds and lives is on, so please support us: http://www.cityaces.org/contribute. It’s a worthwhile cause.