Group honors member of West Side mentoring program
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a modern-day take on the Cinderella story, a group of West Side boys took a trip to Washington, D.C.
Their big event was a highly unusual tour of U.S. Secret Service headquarters. There was no ride in a horse-drawn coach, but they did get a rare glimpse inside the presidential limousine.
And while they didn't dress for a ball, they wore borrowed Brooks Brothers ties.
That was last August. On Monday night, it was time for a ceremony.
The sound of applause could be heard throughout the Second Avenue Neighborhood Center on Charleston's West Side.
The group of boys had gathered to honor a mentor and celebrate two of their own.
It was the first meeting of the year for Boys to Men, a children's mentoring group. The boys, who are in elementary and middle school, were excited to see each other.
But they also were sad because it was their last meeting with Ronald Layton, a mentor who by day is the resident agent in charge of Charleston's U.S. Secret Service office. Layton was promoted and is being transferred back to Washington.
The group, which was founded to pair troubled boys with positive mentors, just marked its first year, said Errol Randle, a Charleston police officer.
Randle and Denny Westover together started the group. Through word of mouth, they found mentors willing to help the boys better themselves and show them how far they could go in life.
The mentors are men from all walks of life, including a city police officer, a trial lawyer, a Secret Service agent, a U.S. marshal, an electrician, a church deacon and a construction worker, Randle said.
"These kids are the ones who were thrown out of all the other community centers," said Westover, an elevator technician. "These were the tough deals.
"They were all tanking in school, but now they're looking at 3- and 4-point (cumulative grade point) averages," Westover said. "They've made quite a significant improvement. Some of these boys have won citizenship or leadership awards in their schools."
One such success is Amarion Hairston. Amarion, 8, was facing the very real possibility of being thrown out of Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School before joining the group, Westover said.
But Amarion buckled down. As his behavior improved, his grades began to turn around.
"For a long time they were going down," he said of his grades. "Now I'm doing good."
It might sound simple, but he said he's learned that good choices lead to good things and that bad choices lead to bad things.
"I don't want to make bad choices," Amarion said.
He listened intently as Layton spoke for the last time Monday.
The federal agent said he quickly learned that he and the boys came from similar backgrounds.
"I came from the same place you did except sometimes I think the circumstances were a little worse," Layton told the boys.
He described a rough childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, including one incident when he was 8 years old and found his dog shot dead. He told them about those experiences to show them they were capable of achieving their goals, he said.
"It's multi-faceted and you can't take a one-size-fits-all approach," Layton said. "The first thing you have to do is listen."
He called his work with the boys a "little piece of a contribution" but was beaming with pride at their accomplishments.
"Look at how the kids are going from D's and C's to B's and A's," he said. "That didn't take money; it took time and love and caring."
Layton left the boys with his rules for life, "Mr. Ron's Rules," he called them.
He told them to work harder and learn everything they could. He told them to dream big and do great things because God didn't make anyone to be average. He told them always to try to help others.
He was surprised when the group honored him by naming its highest award for him. He said he was proud when he presented it to two boys who made vast improvements both in school and out.
While the "den mothers," women who also work with the boys and help with tutoring, were slicing Layton's goodbye cake, he told the boys he had high expectations of them.
"When someone bestows an award upon you, it comes with some responsibility," he said. "Don't let me down."
Amarion told his great-grandmother, Margaret Henderson, he knew he would get the award because he had done so well in school. Henderson was sitting in on the meeting Monday night when Layton presented the Ronald M. Layton Excellence Through Education award to Amarion and Kijante Figures, 12. Both boys accepted with beaming smiles.
"I'm really proud of him," she said. "He's come a long way."
Kijante, a sixth-grader at Stonewall Jackson Middle School, said earning that award was a great feeling.
"I improved since fourth and fifth grades and this really helped me," Kijante said of the group. "It gave me more initiative to do better at school instead of playing around."
He said his grades have improved and he recently made the basketball team.
"I'm proud of him and so glad that he has positive male role models in his life," said Melanie Hairston, Kijante's mother. "It's humbling that someone of their status can take the time to come and spend time with these boys.
"It shows that regardless of where they've made it, that they don't forget where they came from and that they can share their experiences."
The group also takes the boys on trips, little excursions like fishing at Cato Park in Charleston and big ones like the trek to Washington, D.C., last August. The boys got a tour of the White House and a rare look inside U.S. Secret Service headquarters.
Group organizers said it was the first time any group had been permitted on such a tour, which included an up-close look at the presidential limousine. The trip was funded by donations from group organizers and community members.
Tom Sweeney, a Charleston lawyer who mentors with the group, said the mentors bought the children collared shirts and he loaned the boys his Brooks Brothers neckties. Each boy also got a lesson in tying a necktie.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.