The Rev. Barnwell Credit: William Barnwell

How many New Orleanians know about the amazing College Track afterschool program, right in the middle of the 9th Ward? I certainly didn’t until Walter Isaacson, the author and Aspen Institute leader, recruited me three years ago to be a volunteer mentor, helping students write the required “personal statements” for their college applications.

College Track begins supporting our young people in all of their academic subjects during 9th grade, works with them through high school, and supports them through their years in college. At any one time, there are more than 400 students in the program (those in high school and in college), with about 45 in each senior high school class. Most of the students are the first in their families to attempt higher education. Close to 100 percent of the students are accepted into a two-year or four-year colleges.

The Urban League of Greater New Orleans first sponsored College Track in 2008. Sherdren Burnside, a former English teacher, served as Site Director for the first seven years. She writes of the program: “I’ve witnessed the shock and frustration of college freshmen, who, after receiving top marks in local high schools, entered first-year essay classes without skills to keep up. So far behind, many of these students withdrew. College was simply too late and too demanding for catching up on basic skills. … Our students write not because they have to, but because they want to, and because we are offering them an audience for their ideas.”

I found in mentoring the high school juniors and seniors that most could write as well as the freshmen students I taught over the years at UNO. The secret of College Track essay writing is simple: We teachers help the students trust us and, through various activities, trust each other. They know that their personal stories will be appreciated. The job of mentors, like me, is to help around the edges, encouraging and, when necessary, teaching the mechanics of writing: punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure and so forth.

Here is Robert Burnside, now a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, writing about a major turning point in his life:

Surrounded by red, white, blue flashing lights I froze at the approaching white officer’s command. In that moment, time stood still. The sound of police sirens grew louder and louder as two more police cars pulled up to the curb and officers jumped out of their vehicles. Every single police officer looked the same: white pale skin, light blue shirt, with hands on their firearm. Though frozen I could still hear my friend Alonzo trying to explain to the cops as they swiftly surrounded me about how we were just students. Alonzo and I were on a corner waiting to catch the bus to College Track.

My heart began to race as I wondered about my fate. Prior to this day I had never been stopped by a cop. As an officer frisked me for weapons or drugs, I thought to myself, Why am I being treated as if I were a criminal? I don’t know where it came from, but I mustered the courage to ask the officer, “Why am I being stopped? Did I do something wrong?” Yes, I had worn a red hoodie over my school uniform on my way from school to College Track.

In those moments, I experienced the effects of a society mired in discrimination. I became aware of the discrimination all around me that I previously did not notice. I became aware of the perception that others held of me. I resolved not to become bitter, but to become better. The officers, six of them in three cars, were responding to a call reporting that there was a man with a gun wearing a red hoodie in the area. …

[module align=”left” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]Having to be in the hospital for days, then leave to be sick at home only to be right back in the hospital was not how I imagined my junior year of high school, but I didn’t want that to stop me.[/module] Here is Tia Cage. She tells of how she was selected to meet with doctors and nurses for a week-long workshop in California.  She was so excited, and after the workshop, she knew, for sure, that she would study to become a pediatric nurse practitioner. But then …

It wasn’t long after that trip [to California] that I was diagnosed with metastatic osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.  At first, my doctor recommended amputating my leg because the cancer was located in a very difficult area on my pelvis. I told the doctor not to go through with the amputation. I didn’t know it then, but my life was drastically changed. The only time I had spent at the hospital before was for volunteer work. I had spent over 60 hours as a volunteer worker that summer alone. Soon, Children’s Hospital became my home away from home.

The first few months of my treatment were exhausting. Having to be in the hospital for days, then leave to be sick at home only to be right back in the hospital was not how I imagined my junior year of high school, but I didn’t want that to stop me.  … Because of where the tumor was located, the four lower vertebrae of my spine were fused together, the right side of my pelvis was removed, and a few nerves were cut leaving me unable to move or feel my right leg. In June of 2014, I completed my chemotherapy treatments. Today, I am cancer-free.

Getting back on track with school my senior year was harder than I had hoped. I am mostly wheelchair bound, and although my right leg isn’t functional, I am learning to walk with assistance (with a brace, walker, and crutches) in physical therapy. My heart was set on nursing, but I’ve questioned whether I would ever be able to do something that rigorous. I think about how my life would be different if I weren’t diagnosed with cancer. I would be working at the Superdome where I would get to see my favorite football team, the Saints, while saving money for college. I would be helping my family in any way that I could. I would be a member of the varsity volleyball team at Lake Area High School, a loyal volunteer worker at many different places, a better friend, daughter, sister, and aunt.

I wouldn’t change a thing, though. I surprise myself with the goals I accomplish every day. I have also found the career I would be more than happy doing for the rest of my life, which is social services. One day, I will start my own non-profit organization helping those I’ve learned to call “differently abled teens,” like me. I am still striving to have some normalcy in my life. It’s just the beginning though. I know that I have so much more to look forward to, and whenever I get discouraged, I have to think about the fact that everything I have gone through has made me stronger. My trials and tribulations have only increased my faith.

Tia is now in her third year at Xavier University. She calls her story “Differently Abled.”

And here is Troy Simon. He grew up in the worst poverty and violence in New Orleans and couldn’t read until he was 14. He then found College Track, and in three short years, he learned to read — now, all the time — and also write engaging and inspiring stories of his growing-up years. (I am helping him as he now writes his book-length stories.) At 18, he won a full scholarship to Bard College in New York and is now a second-year graduate student at Yale Divinity School. Here is one of Troy’s most painful childhood memories — he was seven at the time. (Troy’s father is also named Troy and Troy, the son, was called Moon.)

“Troy,” my mother said to my father, “you’re listening to those people on the street about those men I’m supposed to be hanging out with.” She began to cry harder. “They are all liars! It’s all lies. Come on, Moon,” she said to me, “Give me my baby.”

My mother took my little sister, Naomi, by the hand, still holding her garbage bag full of clothes over her shoulder. I saw the hurt, the pain, the struggle. My father had put my mother out of the house before and told her to find another place.

I never understood it, but I knew that it had something to do with the man she was on the phone with earlier and the private caller. I didn’t bother to find out. We were kids. I knew that I would be beaten if I intervened. What my mother and father did was none of my business.

I was just a kid and hardly knew what was going on. All I knew was that my mother and father were torn and broken. Their hearts were so far apart from one another that they couldn’t see the hurt and pain that they were bringing upon their children. I cried, but not for my mom and my father. I cried for peace and an end to the madness and the pain I went through and was going through since the day I was born. I knew that, in some crazy way, they both loved each other and me!

Drawing on Biblical reference to the angels who helped Jesus resist the devil’s temptations, I call young people like Robert, Tia, and Troy our “angels” in the New Orleans wilderness.

The Louisiana University Press has just published the Rev. William Barnwell’s most recent book: “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond,”which is filled with stories like these. On Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. he will read from the book and sign copies at the Ashé Cultural Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Another reading and signing is scheduled at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., at 6 p.m. Sept. 26.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.