Good fortune can turn up in unexpected places.
For Andrew Wright, some of the greatest fortune was in the Toledo Correctional Institution.
It was where he earned his barbershop license while serving time for a theft conviction in the early 2000s. Without it, he might not have ever struck his first job at an Akron barbershop in the late 2000s after he was released from prison.
But more important, he might not have found an avenue to project his life lessons on some of Akron’s most vulnerable population: kids.
“Once I knew I would get opportunity to try again, I would never let myself go back to being that person,” Wright said.
In 2015, after years of cutting kids’ hair, Wright started the Young Scholars Mentoring Center, an after-school program meant to keep kids out of the streets. With the help of a $25,000 grant from State Farm, Wright recently opened a dedicated home for the program at 1139 Brittain Road in an empty office building.
Wright’s idea to found a youth mentoring program was prompted by tragedy.
Wright had worked first at Blend, then across the street at SugaRay’s Barbershop, for years and got to know many of the kids whose hair he cut.
In 2013, one of those “kids” — 23-year-old Paris Wicks II, an Ellet High School graduate — was shot and died behind a convenience store at Lovers Lane and South Arlington Street.
“When something bad happens, the first thing you think is, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve said something to them,’ ’’ Wright said. “That was pretty much the last straw for me. I still think about that kid pretty much every day now.”
Wright’s own history played a role, too.
Wright said he got involved with the wrong crowd after dropping out of Youngstown State University and moving back to Kent.
After a bad decision, Wright said he went from being a college student with no criminal history to a man facing six years in jail. He was 23 at the time.
“For me, it was more of an embarrassment for many years. Now I see that was something that pretty much had to get me to where I am right now,” Wright said.
Now 41, Wright has been building the Young Scholars Mentoring program for the past two years.
“I always tell them, ‘I’m not telling you what I think, I’m telling you what I know’ — how a split second can change your life,” Wright said.
It’s the main premise of his program: Give kids the information and models they need to stay in school and out of trouble.
The primary goal of Young Scholars Mentoring is academic success, Wright said.
But beyond that, he aims to teach kids financial literacy, general responsibility, networking skills, social etiquette — and to, “at all times, be a gentleman and a lady. That’s what we preach most,” Wright said.
Each kid is paired with a mentor who helps with homework and sets good examples. Wright said all of the mentors are longtime friends of his, and many of them work in schools as teachers or coaches.
“When Drew brought the idea to me about the mentoring program, it was right on the spot with what we were seeing a need for,” said Wayne Stevenson, a mentor and assistant football coach at East High School. “It’s small, but it’s unique.”
Until the space opened up, Wright said he and other mentors were working with kids they knew through the barbershop and schools in the Akron-Summit County Main Library downtown.
But last spring, Wright’s friend, who is a State Farm agent, let him know about the company’s Neighborhood Assist grant, which awards $25,000 to 40 community projects across the nation annually.
After nine days of voting in September, Young Scholars Mentoring wound up in the top 10 projects.
“It was just so humbling knowing that many people supported us,” Wright said. “It just gave us so much more focus and enthusiasm to make this something special.”
The Young Scholars Mentoring Center’s Computer and Tutoring Lab is small, but fitting for Wright’s program.
Four computers, each with two monitors, are available for kids to do homework on and print. A few tables hover in the corner for students and mentors to work at together.
A TV, a fridge stocked with snacks and a single barber’s chair are in the adjacent room.
Open from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the center is available to any student who needs free help with homework, advice or just a place to hang out after school. Parents don’t need to sign their kids up or call beforehand — the center is open to walk-ins.
On a recent Thursday, only a few kids were using the space. But the Young Scholar mentors are certain the program will grow.
So is Martell Hill, a senior at East High School. The 17-year-old has been getting haircuts from Wright since he was in elementary school, and he was one of the first kids to participate in the program.
Hill said he plans on going to college to play football and study nursing, and he credits Wright for helping guide him in the right direction.
“In Akron, you’ve got so many young kids who just get off track so fast,” Hill said. “Drew, he’s gonna show you you have someone who actually cares about you.”
As Wright grows the program, he said he’s also grown his relationship with his son, who is now 16. Wright also is back in school and eight courses away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in organizational supervision from University of Akron.
But the nonprofit founder may just stick to his roots.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Wright’s single barber chair in his new space becomes the Young Scholars Mentoring Center and Barbershop, which operates on a donation basis. “We’ve been so blessed,” Wright said. “Everything’s been working out with the program so miraculously, so I feel like I’m really doing what God intended for me to be doing.”
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.
Former inmate uses barbering and life lessons to guide kids in youth mentoring program
Good fortune can turn up in unexpected places.