As the winter sun rises, a cadre of men walks a familiar route from school to school within some of the most poverty-stricken, crime-plagued neighborhoods in our nation’s capital. Their mission is to provide the students in three public housing developments a safe passage to class without fear of violence or being pulled off track.
This consistent personal effort is their gift to their community, and it is a gift that they will go on giving every day long after the Christmas decorations are packed away.
The men who have devoted themselves to the task of being a presence of peace along the students’ routes in a volatile environment have two things in common. All have served time in prison, and all are members of the Phelps Stokes National Homecomers Academy—a re-entry program whose title connotes, significantly, not where they have been but who they are now: men who have come home with a desire to uplift and give back to their communities.
On a recent safe-passage walk, Homecomers director Curtis Watkins was accompanied by two men who had each served more than 30 years of prison time. They talked about their commitment to reach elementary and middle school students with a message about the importance of achieving an education and the consequences of impulsive actions and short-sighted choices.
“Individuals coming home from prison have certain gifts and talents and are in a position to make a change in the community if given an opportunity,” said Watkins.
The men are familiar faces along their routes. Along the way they are greeted—and hugged—by a father walking his six-year-old boy to school and a high school student, once a legendary troublemaker, who is now on a pathway to success thanks to his relationship with members of the organization.
The men point out the figure of a lone student whose daily trek crosses a corner hangout of drug dealers but who will be undeterred because of the Homecomers’ presence. One tells of intervening last week to stop a fight that was erupting along his route.
In the afternoon, the Homecomers will conduct another walk for students’ safe passage from school and then go on to provide guidance and support for the youths at the organization’s “Make-a-Difference” safe house and after-school program.
The efforts of these committed men lie in the shadows of the spotlight that shines on the debates of Capitol Hill, but the work of the Homecomers and thousands of counterpart neighborhood groups throughout the nation are the bedrock of America’s civil society.
That’s why Representative Steve Southerland (R–FL), who leads the Republican Study Committee’s Antipoverty Initiative, and several congressional staff walked with the Homecomers one early morning last week to learn from those transforming America one life at a time.
These are the ground troops and small platoons that can play a critical role in our nation’s societal renewal and revitalization.