In the past week, Black Lives Matter activists on the streets of Charlotte, Hillary Clinton on the presidential debate stage, and student protestors at Durham’s Jordan High School all brought attention to the opportunity gap that they say leaves young black and brown people in thin air, without support.
In Durham, Carlton Koonce and Randy Trice are doing the boots-on-the-ground work to change that.
Koonce is the internship and media coordinator for Partners for Youth Opportunity, a non-profit that increases educational and economic opportunities for young adults in Durham.
“We teach you everything about what it is to learn how to work,” Koonce said.
Trice is a street outreach worker and gang interventionist for Project BUILD, an organization that helps 12 to 22 year olds at high risk of gang involvement steer their lives in another direction.
“We have quite a few success stories,” Trice said. “They don’t come as often as we want. You know, that would be ideal. But that’s not the world we are currently living in.”
Trice’s clients are referred to him by schools and from all over the city, or from the jail right in downtown. A majority of the young people he works with are black, male, and low-income, he said. His youngest client is 14.
Koonce works with youth who qualify for free or reduced lunch, are the child of a first-generation immigrant, or who have a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated.
“I say, ‘Hey, come with us. We’re going to show you how you level the playing field,’” Koonce said.
Koonce and Trice both work with organizations that provide wrap-around services, from helping their clients to stay in school to helping make sure they have health insurance. Sometimes, their work requires a more personal attention to detail.
“I saw that the little things, like when they don’t have a ride to practice, come by, pick them up, that was a big help to a family that didn’t have transportation. Or had transportation but their car broke down and they didn’t have means to repair it right then. Just filling in the gaps,” Trice said.
Koonce and Trice are both fathers and try to find balance between raising their own children while working as a mentor for scores of young people. Koonce leaves work every day at 2:45 to pick up his son, Michael, from the third grade and brings him back to the office. Michael, who his father calls Mr. Koonce, sits on the edge of a tall-backed office chair, feet swinging, and leans over his homework without being asked.
When Trice helped found the Durham Raiders, a football team for at-risk and gang-related young men, he was also working a full time job.
“At one points my kids did get kinda jealous,” Trice said.
Trice said he does his best to stay involved in his son’s activities. That means going to football games — his son, Randy Trice, Jr., is Hillside High School’s starting quarterback — and participating in Hillside’s All Father’s Club which works to increase school involvement among fathers. On weekends, Trice tries to volunteer with his son to give back to the community, he said.
Trice began working with kids over 20 years. He began by coaching his kids when they started playing sports. That experience helped him learn about other children, their parents and the difficulties they faced.
“When you’re in that capacity,” Trice said, “you see a lot of different dynamics of people’s lives. It just drew me to actually continue to work with our youth.”
He said that he could have been selfish with his time and just focused on his own children. Instead, Trice opened up his home, his finances, and his time without asking anything in return, he said.
Koonce follows a similar philosophy. He has what he needs, he said. A wife, his son, a home and a new pit bull puppy.
“The way I look at it, I’m already rich,” Koonce said. “I’m a very rich guy.”
Both men agreed that being a mentor is hard work. It can leave them tired and burnt out. There are moments that reinvigorate them, though, like getting a call from a kid they had mentored and who is now in a good place with a job, in college, or doing well at home. Sometimes, they just want to chat, Trice said. It is nice to get some recognition, Koonce said. It is these moments of invigoration that keep the mentors going.
“They don’t come frequently,” Trice said. “But when they come, they come right on time.”