Twenty-two year old Lawrence Richardson, a former Youth Organizer with T.E. was shot and killed on Dayton Street in Rochester. Six months later the sense of loss remains with Teen Empowerment Program Director Doug Ackley. "I keep a flyer for the Peace March that we made right in my car so that everyday it keeps me going," he said. "We put his face up on the window outside because we know that that's the inspiration that young people need, is someone like Lawrence."
Richardson was a poster child for what Teen Empowerment can do. Once absorbed by drugs and violence, he turned his life around and shared his message with others to do the same. At one open mic event, Richardson spoke of ending the cycle of violence. "Once I retaliate on him, who's going to get me? So I'm stopping the cycle," he said.
In the wake of Richardson's death, Youth Organizers at Teen Empowerment called for peace, but the violence continues. "This won't be the first and this won't be the last, but you also have to realize that this has to stop and this can stop, and it may just start with you," said Arquan Smith of Rochester.
Smith was a Teen Empowerment Youth Organizer last year. He reapplied for his position this fall. "I have a lot of friends out here who are in the streets, so if they can see me making a difference, I feel as if they'll get off the streets and actually want to make a difference and change," said Smith.
Each year hundreds apply for ten coveted Youth Organizer positions, jobs that pay teens money to bring about change. The interview process takes about two months and last over several rounds of cuts. Unlike other jobs, the interviews are conducted in a group setting with interactive elements to flesh out ideas and leaders - teens who can inspire their peers at a march or through spoken word, rap and dance. "Part of what we're doing through this interview process is we're trying to mix up a group that's got a whole bunch of different talents," said Ackley to one group during the second round of interviews.
Sixteen year old J'La Jones of Rochester is a junior at the School of the Arts. She's motivated to make things better by her one year old son Paris. "I would want to be in this program to make our community better for the next generation, and generations afterwards," she said.
Demetris Fowler, a senior at S.O.T.A., has interviewed twice at Teen Empowerment but never been hired. Richardson's death in the spring still weighs on him. "That really hurts to know somebody from a base, a home base where you're trying a change in the community get taken away," he said. When asked if he felt the next group of Youth Organizers have a responsibility to carry on Richardson's legacy at T.E. he said, "We have, I feel like we do."
As Ackley considered the two hundred applicants for ten Youth Organizer positions this fall he noted, "In every one of these seats, in every one of these interviews, in every one of these groups that we do a Teen Empowerment, there's a Lawrence."
The question is, who are the ten prepared to take on the challenge of Youth Organizers at Teen Empowerment, and what will they do to address the cycle of violence, drug abuse and poverty around them.
Part two of our special report on Teen Empowerment airs Friday night at 11 on News 8.
To learn more about Teen Empowerment, click here.