Five teenagers were honored on Thursday for completing life skills training and goal-setting exercises through Project Imagine, a community violence intervention collaborative that steers gang-prone kids off the streets and toward pursuing something greater in their life, such as completing school and becoming employed.
Graduating from the program were Terrance Adkins Jr., Ja’Zyon Fitzgerald, Jayden Harrington, Tashawn Simmons, and Jaylen Valentine.
Robert David, youth services and gang violence prevention coordinator for the City of Danville, commended the youths for taking this step, and he said the Project Imagine staff will serve as a support system for them going forward.
“I like to call us your new ‘aunts and uncles’ because there might not be resources you can get, but we can,” David said, speaking to the graduating kids. “That is what we do. We are that support system in every aspect.”
David said the staff will be an advocate for the youths in school and in the community.
“We are going to stand behind you when you are right, and when you are wrong, we are going to hold you accountable,” David said. “That is what we are here for, because we want you to be successful.”
Curtis Artis, assistant coordinator for the program, thanked the parents of the graduates for trusting the program with their children.
“We’ve never had a turnout of parents concerned about their children like this,” Artis said. “You need to hold me and everybody in this room accountable for your child. Also remember, we are a team. We are going to work together to make sure each of these young men succeed and not become a statistic.”
Deputy City Manager Earl Reynolds encouraged the kids to stay on a positive path.
“People will call you what you answer to,” Reynolds said. “Therefore, you need to know what your name is. If you don’t know what your name is, then you don’t know how to answer. You will answer to anything.”
For example, Reynolds said, “If they say, ‘industrious,’ then you say, ‘yes, are you calling me?’ If they say, ‘forward-thinking,’ then you say, ‘yes, are you calling me?’ ‘What do you want?’ … Always answer to the positive side of who you are.”
He also stressed the importance of goals in life.
“Where is it that you want to go?” Reynolds asked. “If you don’t know where you want to go, then you will never get there. … You will never reach that place where you can say that ‘I am here. I have arrived.’”
Since the program’s inception, 15 classes, totaling 85 teens, have graduated.
Project Imagine started in 2018 to create a positive “image” in the youth’s mind so that he or she can “imagine” a life without gangs or crime. Initially, the program consisted of a nine-week paid work experience and mentoring while on the job with a partnering agency.
The focus now is developing and maintaining those relationships as each teen progresses in meeting their goals, such as finishing school and becoming employed. A Project Imagine outreach worker is assigned to mentor each teen in the program for a minimum of one year.
David says Project Imagine provides opportunities for the kids, who in turn have the responsibility of taking advantage of it.
As part of the program, the participants receive strength-based assessments using the Casey Life Skills and Clifton Strengths tools that aim to set youth on their way toward developing healthy, productive lives.
The teens in Project Imagine are chosen from referrals from the police department, courts, schools, and parents.
Project Imagine has received national recognition. In 2020, David was named a winner of the Frederic Milton Thrasher Award by the National Gang Crime Research Center. The award recognizes his accomplishments in gang prevention and intervention.
The program also received the President’s Award from the Virginia Municipal League in October 2019.