By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Dead, in prison or living under a bridge.
Jeremy McNack and Lamont Lumpkin knew the odds for black kids who drop out of high school.
McNack, 20, was already homeless, sleeping in a basement whenever a friend would sneak him into their parents’ house, and sleeping in the parks of his hometown Lee’s Summit when he couldn’t find shelter.
Lumpkin, also 20, was already no stranger to the criminal justice system, having spent time before he turned 18 in juvenile lock-ups, and even now is still on probation for offenses he wants to put in his past and declines to discuss.
But reaching deep inside themselves, both McNack and Lumpkin knew they didn’t have to wind up like so many others like them. They were exactly the kind of kids that Project Rise was designed to save.
An old friend from high school told McNack about Project Rise. A relative of Lumpkin’s girlfriend clued him in.
Project Rise is a program piloted in New York City and brought to Kansas City by Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Kansas City Full Employment Council that reaches out to unemployed, young (ages 18 to 24) high school dropouts.
Armed with a three-year $3.8 million grant from the federal Social Innovation Fund, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and United Way of Greater Kansas City, Project Rise provides paid internships and jobs while participants earn their GED high school equivalency diplomas, and post-high school education that leads to a career.
More importantly, said McNack and Lumpkin, two of its earliest enrollees, it has allowed them to dream.
McNack is training to become a certified nursing assistant, and has landed an internship at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Lumpkin is enrolling in business courses at Penn Valley Community College with plans to one day own and operate his own barber shop.
But both young men said it still took a bolt from God to make them realize that they had to change.
For McNack, it was a picture on Facebook of a friend of a friend holding her hands with the words “Jer. 29:11” written in Sharpie pen across them.
“Jeremiah — Jeremy. 11 — my birthday,” McNack thought. So he looked up the Bible verse:
“For I know well the plans I have for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.”
“I freaked out,” McNack said. “I had a friend drop me off at a church, and I prayed. Right after that, I knew I had to get out of that scene. All I was doing was no good.”
For Lumpkin, it was his girlfriend telling him she was pregnant.
“That’s what opened my eyes,” he said. “I didn’t have my daddy around, and I always used that as an excuse not to listen to anyone. I was an angry child. I was always running around. I needed a change. I needed to go back to school so I could get a job and support my family.”
Lumpkin’s girlfriend gave birth to a son, Lamont Louis Lumpkin Jr. Proud father? He’s quick to pull out his cellphone, where he has video stored of the smiling, happy baby, his father cooing at him without a hint of self-consciousness.
But both he and McNack said, in separate interviews, that while they know, beyond doubt, that they are finally on the right path, that path is still long and hard.
“I never really had a steady job,” Lumpkin said. “I wasn’t the person that I am today. I was doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing. I had a bad temper. I had no respect for anything or anyone. I was smart then, but my attitude wasn’t right. I had nothing to live for.
“Now I am setting an example for somebody — my son,” he said. “I’ve made a commitment to my son.”
“I know I still have to change from the inside out,” McNack said.
That change, he said, couldn’t have happened without God’s help.
“There was absolutely nothing I could have done on my own,” he said. “It was just me having faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ. I gave it all over to God, and that’s the moment I started to have faith in myself. I am still giving it all to God.”
Lumpkin said he began to read the Bible daily while he was incarcerated as a juvenile.
“That’s where I found God,” he said.
Lumpkin also realized that he might already be in prison, serving a long sentence, except for second chances given to him by judges, probation officers, and the case managers and mentors at Project Rise who believe in him.
“If I keep getting these chances, then obviously I should be doing something different than what I’d been doing,” he said. “And you know what? It’s God giving me all these chances. Every time I fall, God picks me up and tells me to try again.”
Now, he said, he is determined.
“My mind is made up, and once I make up my mind, I can’t change it,” he said.
“I’m going to make it.”