SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) For 18-year-old Marqual West, walking across the stage to graduate from PSLA at Fowler on June 30th was a moment so many people told him would never happen.
Proud to show his grandmother and entire family that he could graduate was a major milestone. West says he is the first person to graduate high school in his big family.
Getting to graduation day was not easy.
When West was 15, he got caught up running with the wrong crowd. A gun possession charge landed him in jail. Talking to adults living the “street life” opened his eyes.
“You can continue doing what you do, but I advise you not to,” West shared. “I’d rather you go to school because school is going to help you get somewhere rather than being in the street stuck in the hood. Stuck in the same four squares that you can’t really get out of.”
Now, West has aspirations to study business at Onondaga Community College and then transfer to a four-year school.
Like West, 19-year-old Zaafir King is determined.
King is on track to graduate in August from PSLA at Fowler and go on to college like West.
While they are both from neighborhoods plagued by violence and crime, King’s story is different from West’s.
What is the same is needing support and strength — things they feel from adopted family like Dr. Najah Salaam, chief operating officer at Street Addiction Institute.
“These youth that we are talking about have experienced trauma at a level that I think neither you nor I could really process the way they have at their age,” Salaam said.
Both West and King say they, “refuse to be statistics.”
“It is hard for black people to just go to school and try to get a job,” West said. “It’s more easier for a black person to go to the streets, sell drugs. I’d rather take the hard way out because I like challenges.”
King’s trauma comes from suffering the loss of in-home family support. His mother has been serving time for more than a year, putting him at risk to get off track in life.
“[Dr. Salaam] supported me through it all even though I’ve been down,” King shared. “Because around that time my mom ended up getting incarcerated so I didn’t have nobody in my circle. I was depressed, she made sure I had a shoulder I could cry on. If I needed her, she’s a call away.”
Salaam says her staff understands that if a child hits a roadblock and they want to give up, they know it is a “relapse.”
“What do you do when a person relapses? You don’t throw them away,” Salaam said. “You go the extra mile to make sure you are making those phone calls and make sure they’re OK.”
Focusing on school paired with community service is what both Salaam and Street Addiction Institute Program Manager Anthony “Fu” Pitts sees as the answer.
“These kids — everybody has written their story, you know what I mean? From the juvenile justice system, school system…everybody has told their story,” Pitts shared. “They’re this, they’re that. I try to tell them to tell their own story. Don’t let somebody else create your narrative. You tell your story and be committed to it.”
Pitts lost his brother 10 years ago to violence, pushing him to make a change. He says it’s up to his generation to get teens back on track.
“It seems bad in Syracuse right now, right? But to me, this is the beginning,” Pitts said. “I see a lot of young people, young minorities, taking ownership of a community and stepping up and trying to be a part of the solution as well as opposed to part of the problem. That’s what we need. It’s not going to change or somebody else come help. It’s going to change with us helping ourselves. I’m encouraged.”
To learn more about the Street Addiction Institute’s programs, click here.