ASHEBORO — Four days. Six adults. Sixteen young people. And more than 1,160 miles.
The sum of those parts — facts and figures that represent a recent road trip by the Village of Barnabas (VOB) to learn about civil rights history where it happened — cannot be measured.
The Asheboro-based, nonprofit group was established last year to mentor young people who are 11-17, years when many make poor choices about who they are, who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. The organization aims to nurture hopes and dreams in young people who otherwise might have no ambitions — or even any idea that they have options.
The initiative combines the volunteer service of adults to listen and share the voice of experience with tutoring, community service, and with excursions near and far that are designed to show the young participants a world beyond the boundaries of Randolph County.
The trip June 28-July 1 to Atlanta, Ga., and the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery was also intended to educate, said Gene Woodell, one of the group’s co-founders.
“Give them that visual of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the whole civil rights movement,” he said in an interview last week. “Really, they hear it all the time, but, you know, actually to see it and to be in the midst of it, I thought that was really great for these kids.”
Four teens from Asheboro High School who made the trip — Marwan Harouach, 15, Isaiah Jackson, 16, Diamond Staley, 17, and Matthew Thorpe, 15 — sat down for an interview last week to talk about it. Harouach and Thorpe are rising sophomores; Jackson and Staley are rising juniors.
“They had to fight for our freedom to where we are today,” Staley said, “and we need to understand what it really meant for them fighting for us to give us the opportunity to have a great education, to go to a free school, to get clothes, to get shoes, because back then they weren’t eligible to get what we have today.”
VOB mentor Quinton Louris agreed.
“It was good for these young people to see what people fought for,” he said. “We haven’t gotten to the Promised Land, as Dr. King said, but we’re making great strides to get there.”
The seeds of the grassroots initiative were sown within hours of the shooting deaths of Asheboro brothers Tony and Quanta McRae at a 2017 New Year’s Eve party in Asheboro. Tony was 31. Quanta was 29.
In the wake of the violent deaths, Melvin “Pete” Marley issued a call on Facebook, with a simple and powerful message: “We can’t lose another child.” Marley’s son, Orlando Bernard “PJ” Johnson, was 24 when he died in a Christmas Eve shooting in Asheboro in 2010.
Marley and two other local men, Woodle and Dexter Trogdon Jr., spearheaded conversations about how to stem the repeating pattern of violence and death among young people. That led to the formation of Village Of Barnabas, which takes its name from the New Testament story of Barnabas. Barnabas was an encourager.
“That passion burns to get more kids in and to grow it,” Marley said in a telephone interview last week.
Harouach said he did not know what he was getting into when his mother signed him up for VOB participation. Now he knows that group mentors “show you a better way.”
“I got into a good, Christian organization,” he said, “that helps me out with my problems … anything really.”
On the recent trip, each young person had a journal for writing thoughts. Each one was asked to include a passage on “What does the VOB mean to me?”
Thorpe wrote: “Barnabas means ‘encourager.’ There are too many kids going down the wrong path. The leaders of this group encourage kids to stay off the street and away from gangs by helping the community. People don’t have it good everywhere. We as kids don’t take mentors for granted.”
Staley noted that the goal of the Village of Barnabas is to mold young leaders “to go out in the community to make a change, to make a difference.”
A southbound caravan — two vans and an SUV — left Asheboro before dawn on June 28 carrying VOB mentors — Quinton and Sherry Louris, Pete and Melanie Marley, and Gene and Jackie Woodle — and 16 young people, 10 boys and six girls.
Over four days they toured museums, churches and other sites that tell the story, or were part of the story, of the African-American struggle for equality in the United States.
They visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave (with his wife buried next to him) at the King Center in Atlanta, next to Ebenezer Baptist Church’s Heritage Sanctuary.
They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where police attacked civil rights demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.
They watched a film about incarceration and learned, Thorpe said, prison “is not where you want to come.”
They learned about Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was beaten by troopers and shot by an Alabama State Trooper while he was participating in a peaceful voting rights march (he died eight days later); and Viola Liuzzo of Michigan, who was shot for ferrying protesters in her car, the only white woman killed in the civil rights movement.
An exhibit in one museum allowed visitors to re-create, in a small, but powerful way, the experience of being shackled and crammed into a dark hold of a ship for the sea journey to a life of enslavement.
“It was like, for me, (thinking) ‘people actually went through this’?” Thorpe said. “It seemed pretty uncomfortable (even) for just a couple of minutes.”
Museum visitors could take a stand against hate by typing their names via a keyboard and then seeing them appear among an unending scroll of names on a digital “Wall of Tolerance.” They all signed.
Everything was not a history lesson: They enjoyed a dinner cruise, with live music, on the Alabama River.
The VOB roster includes about 20 young people, but there are many waiting in the wings.
To expand, the group needs more manpower — volunteer mentors and tutors — and money.
“If we didn’t have the people donating, there’s no way possible,” Louris said.
Now they are raising money for at least one 15-passenger van, but they really need two.
A new one would cost $15,000-$20,000. They have their eyes on a used model, which could be used primarily for local trips. It’s only $5,000 and needs about $1,500 worth of work.
“Their money is not going to waste,” Woodle said. “It’s well used.”
During the recent trip, on Saturday night in a Montgomery, Ala., hotel, mentors and mentees experienced a powerful give-and-take, sharing doubts, fears and pain in their lives.
“It got real emotional,” Woodle said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the lobby.”
Another important moment on the trip took place in an Atlanta fast-food restaurant, where Frederick Gattling, one of Gene Woodle’s old friends, a former soldier who is retired from the federal prison system, met with the group.
With their burgers and fries, the young people also got Gattling’s take on choices.
Some of what Gattling said struck a chord with Jackson, who recalled these words: “He said, ‘Don’t tell me what you want to be. Tell me what you’re going to be.’ ”
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Want to get involved, make a donation or suggest a service project? Call Melvin “Pete” Marley at 919-539-0309, Quinton Louris at 336-460-3456 or Gene Woodle at 336-465-7181, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the Village Of Barnabas page on Facebook. The group’s administrative headquarters is at 357 S. Cox St., Unit B, which is the nonprofit incubator next door to offices of the United Way of Randolph County.