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‘Don’t Let 60 Seconds Cost You 60 Years’: Black Men Spending Their Retirement Mentoring Black Youth See Culture Change at Troubled South Carolina High School

“Every young Black boy needs a mentor,” said Thomas Ravenell, a founding member of Combined Intervention.

A group of Black men is taking a stand to keep teens at a predominantly Black South Carolina high school out of trouble.

Combined Intervention is a grassroots organization made up of six retirees. They volunteer their time giving back to Black youth in need of a mentor and father figure. 

The organization is entering its sixth year. Thomas Ravenell, 57, is a retired longshoreman and pastor from North Charleston. He says he can’t imagine himself doing anything other than helping Black boys and teens growing up in the same neighborhoods as he did. 

“I’m a product of the streets. I helped destroy the streets, so it’s my commitment to God to help clean the streets up,” Ravenell said.

Ravenell says he was arrested during his early 20s for misdemeanor crimes. His outlook on life changed when he became a father at age 26.

“We’re dealing with gang issues, drug dealers and users. Everybody is pressured because the majority of our kids are going back home to the hood,” Ravenell said.

Combined Intervention focuses its efforts on North Charleston High School. The school has 736 students. About 81 percent are Black, and 12 percent are Hispanic. 

“We have so many boys wearing ankle bracelets, on house arrest or with criminal records,” Ravenell said.

Jakeara Gadsden, 34, has two teenage sons at the school. Ravenell mentors her sons and has reinvigorated their interest in their education.

“It was horrible. The kids didn’t want to come to school,” Gadsden said.

Gadsden says her sons’ transformation since Ravenell intervened in their life is unmistakable. She says her boys’ father is absent from the home, so they desperately needed a father figure to help guide them away from trouble.

“It gives them an idea of what a man is supposed to be. They’re teaching them about wearing their pants up, not sagging, and to be respectful,” Gadsden said.

“The oldest wanted to be in the group, and he loves the group. The other one didn’t want to be in the group at first but loves the group now,” Gadsden said.

About half of the students at the school are on grade level in reading and math. The school’s graduation rate is around 75 percent, lower than the state average of 84 percent according to Public School Review.

Combined Intervention hosts a conflict resolution summit with guest speakers for North Charleston High School students. (Photo: Thomas Ravenell)

The need for academic improvement and a pressing student discipline problem caused the school’s principal, Henry Darby to seek community support.

Darby told the Post and Courier, “The culture has actually changed. It’s beyond comprehension what Ravenell has done with his time. I don’t think the successes that we have at North Charleston High School socially and culturally would be in existence without his team.”

“Our principal, Mr. Darby, has mentored so many of us. He poured out his wisdom onto us. In return, we must go back and become fathers within our communities,” Ravenell said.

Ravenell says Combined Intervention serves as a stopgap for students engaged in minor infractions like skipping class or acting out. The group mentors and coaches the troubled students to rethink their actions and practice conflict resolution.

“For any student within our school, before he or she is suspended, they come to combined intervention,” Ravenell said.

Ravenell says the group works hard to gain the trust of the students. The group’s tutoring and mentorship extend beyond the classroom enhancing their father-figure role.

“We’re going into the neighborhood and walk the street and talk to the boys from our school,” Ravenell said.

Psychologist Charmain Jackman is an expert in adolescent mental health. She says people like Ravenell serving as mentors and role models for at-risk Black youth have countless benefits.

“Because we have these limited images [of Black male role models] it’s very easy for young people to end up with the ‘wrong crowd,’” Jackman said.

“When we often think about Black men in schools, they’re often in enforcement roles like the ‘dean of discipline’ or the police officer, rarely do we see them in learning roles. Finding opportunities for mentoring relationships is key,” she continued.

Ravenell personally mentors 10 boys. Young fathers also reap the benefits of his mentorship. He plans to keep growing Combined Intervention and widening its impact. He hopes to continue steering at-risk Black youth toward making good decisions. 

“Don’t let 60 seconds cost you 60 years,” Ravenell said. 

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