World Vision Photographer Abby Stalsbroten learned what it takes to change a life at the Children’s Defense Fund Conference last week. At the conference she met Anthony, a participant in World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program. As a teenager, Anthony was headed down a destructive path. His father was in prison, and he joined a gang in middle school. Now at 23, Anthony is an inspirational speaker, and an example to young men in his community. Read on to learn what altered Anthony’s path.
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Anthony Mackey is a classic example of choosing courage over violence and love over bitterness. I met him last week while we were both attending the Children’s Defense Fund conference in Cincinnati, listening to civil rights leaders and community advocates talk about justice for children in poverty. Anthony, a long-time participant and now leader in World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program, knows what it’s like to grow up in poverty.
Born into a volatile family, his father was sent to prison when Anthony was just 5. Anthony struggled throughout school and got into lots of trouble, eventually joining a gang in middle school. His school authorities said he was destined for death or jail.
Now 23, Anthony is very much alive and far from prison. He is a leader in his community, mentoring other young men, and doing motivational speaking, all while playing basketball and pursuing a degree in Early Childhood Education at Albany Technical University in Georgia.
How did he get here? Mentoring and empowerment.
John Watson, a World Vision Youth Outreach Worker, befriended Anthony after he accidentally set fire to his grandmother’s kitchen one day in high school. At this low point, John took Anthony under his wing and helped him make positive changes in his life. As a result of John’s leadership, Anthony left his gang at 17. He says John taught him pretty much everything he knows – how to dress, how to speak, how to act.
And also how to mentor.
“My biggest thing was a lack of fatherhood,” Anthony told me. Since his father has been in prison most of Anthony’s life, he didn’t have many good male role models until John came along. Even now, Anthony wishes he had more men to speak into his life.
“Sometimes it seems like I gotta learn everything on my own as a man,” he says. “Now I’m becoming very curious about life and wanna accomplish a lot of things…wondering and striving, and basically striving for what’s right.”
But he hasn’t let the absence of his dad make him bitter. Instead, he’s a big brother and a positive role model for other young men. As I chatted with him, Adrian, an autistic high school freshman, hovered nearby. Anthony says Adrian always stays close to him, and if Anthony goes away, Adrian gets upset.
I was moved, knowing Anthony’s turbulent history, and yet seeing his patience and compassionate care for Adrian. His words were seasoned with kindness as he talked about other students whose lives he’s had the chance to speak into.
“One thing I can say about Carl King, he’s one of those kids that I know for a fact is gonna do better things when he go off to college,” says Anthony.
Carl, 16, met Anthony three years ago as a middle schooler, when Carl also was on the verge of joining a gang and dropping out. Anthony explained to me that Albany is such a dull town that young people fight out of boredom more than anything else. Carl agrees.
“I know I used to be real bad,” says Carl. “If they can change me, they can change anybody.”
He says Anthony’s presence in his life used to be irritating, but now he sees that he just wants to help. “He cool, like a big brother, you know.” says Carl. “At the end of the day I just listen to him, cause I don’t think he wants me to be in [juvenile detention].”
Carl has been deeply impacted by his time with Anthony through World Vision’s 4REAL (Respect, Educate, Abstain, Lead) program. Even though he’s lost some friends from his old life along the way, he realizes that the choices he makes will change the rest of his life — he could end up stealing cars or being a strong leader in his community. “When you growing up, you’re either going [on] two paths,” he says. “But you gonna graduate in whatever you do.
Carl starts 11th grade this fall, and he’s already planning on studying physics in college. Anthony is the first in his family to graduate not only high school, but in 2014, he’ll receive his bachelor’s degree too. He also hopes to earn a graduate degree someday, and dreams of continuing his work with young people.
“Ten, twenty years from now, I hope and pray that I be married and keep Christ first,” says Anthony. “I just [want to] be a good man wherever I am within my marriage and within my church and within the community and always represent and be an advocate for the youth.”
“If there wasn’t YEP…” Anthony pauses and laughs. “I wouldn’t be the person that I am today.”
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Anthony is one example of a life being changed through the Youth Empowerment Program. You can help vulnerable teens be leaders of positive change in their communities by contributing to the YEP program.