Dressed in white shirts and black slacks, 12 young men filed quietly into the council chambers of the Clayton Center. They stood for a moment facing the audience, then sat down.
The teens are taking a nine-month class that aims to prevent sexual assault. It’s called the Rites of Passage Sexual Violence Prevention program, and the presentation March 28 was a chance for members of the community to see what the young men are learning.
“I wanted the community to acknowledge what they are doing,” said the program’s leader, Terence Leathers of Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton “Just wanting [the boys] to know there are people in the community who support them.”
Parents and siblings of the young men, their mentors and keynote speakers talked about the program and the boys’ progress.
Mentor Terrell McCaskill praised the attitude of the youth. “There were plenty of times they told you to pull your pants up, cut your hair, do this and that, which I thought was really outrageous,” he said. “But the boys were like, ‘Yes, sir, we’ll do it.’”
He added: “The whole purpose of this program today is to applaud these young men for showing us that we do have hope, and they will be able to take this community to the next level.”
The program, funded by the N.C. Department of Justice through the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has been running for two years. Leathers said it yields good results.
“The whole concept is based on sexual-violence prevention,” he said.
The boys, who come from Selma, Clayton and Smithfield, attend monthly meetings to sharpen their awareness of how to prevent sexual violence. They also receive one-on-one training from adult mentors over the course of the nine months.
The boys learn the five “wells” of well dressed, well read, well spoken, well traveled and well balanced. Their monthly meetings focus on a different “well” and tie that “well” into respecting women.
For example, Leathers said, “We try to mingle the concept of being able to dress appropriately as a man with the fact that you don’t have the right to touch a girl in a certain way because they dress in a way you believe is inappropriate.”
It works, Leathers said. “One boy, he used to call his sister the b-word. He would always slam the door in her face,” he said. “After he went through the program, his sister wrote a note to us, and she said that her brother had changed.”
“Whatever you do, please keep doing it,” the sister wrote.
Leathers said those moments are “little steps” of true improvement. “If he can open the door for her now, think how far he’s come that he sees there is something special about her, something significant about her life,” he said. “Maybe he’ll recognize the significance of all women and treat them differently.”
The March 28 presentation was a midway point in the program. The young men will conclude their training with a crossing over ceremony in September.
At one point in the presentation, each boy offered personal testimony about his time in the program.
“My name is Kameron Kelbaugh,” said one, “and I am a mentee in the Rites of Passage program, and one thing I learned is to never treat a woman bad and to treat her like your mom.”
“My name is Keyshawn Barbour,” said another. “I’m a mentee in the Rites of Passage program, and one thing I’ve learned are the five wells – well traveled, meaning there is a lot more to see than just Clayton or North Carolina.”
In addition, the young men heard advice from older members of the program. Willie Bridges told them: “Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. Never doubt. Never, never have a doubt in your heart. Trust him. Believe him. And care for one another.”
Keynote speaker David Arnett reminded the audience to support the boys in the learning process. He told the young men: “I believe in you, and I believe in what you’re doing, and I believe that you are somebody different and that you are transitioning.”
Clayton Councilman Michael Grannis gave the closing remarks. He encouraged the young men to stay on the right path, and he shared a story from his college days when he questioned Catholicism.
“I came up with my definition,” Grannis said. “But then I thought of another religion. It was called ‘Michaelism.’”
The audience laughed.
“My way is better than Catholicism or better than God’s way. I did that for a number of years,” Grannissaid. “I came back. The difference you folks have here today is you don’t have to try something else. You’ve got it all here right now, and you can live that every day.”