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Photojournalism Class Keeps Kids From Falling Through Cracks
The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Feb. 20--Kids sift through hundreds of pictures to organize them. Others scroll through photos on computers. Two clean cameras.

It's 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, and these students are hard at work inside a west Charlotte community center. They are part of the West Boulevard Photojournalism project, which means Saturdays are spent working with instructor Mark Pendergrass not bored at home with little to no supervision or hanging out in the streets.

With the exception of vacation and illness, Pendergrass, 40, has spent every Saturday for the last five years teaching students ages 12-19 the basics of photography. Those are Saturdays he could have been home with his wife and daughters. Instead, he's out of the door by 8 a.m. picking up kids.

"If I'm not there, I know these kids won't have anything to do that Saturday," said Pendergrass, who works as a business systems consultant for Wachovia.

In my first That's Wassup! column, I promised to occasionally spotlight hip-hop generation African Americans who help black youth aspire to be more than rappers, dancers, athletes, thugs or golddiggers. Pendergrass is one such individual.

He grew up in Harlem, N.Y., and says an after-school photo project was one of the things that helped keep him off the streets. He majored in photojournalism and became a freelance photographer for magazines such as Jet. Pendergrass wants the West Boulevard Program, supported by the YMCA, to give Charlotte youth the same outlet photography gave him.

Our kids need all of the help they can get. Not enough parents do their jobs, and schools can't do it alone. It's the bad news about our youth that gets the most attention. For example, early Sunday morning, 17-year-old Travis Moore, a B student with dreams of going to UNC Chapel Hill, was shot and killed at a party. He sounded like a good kid. Now, he's a statistic.

In January, the Observer reported that nearly 1 in 3 people accused of robbery in Charlotte last year was under age 18. The suspects ranged from high school dropouts and drug abusers to straight-A students and athletes.

These kids are falling through gaping holes in the school system and in our community safety net. Pendergrass tries to keep them from the self-destructive behavior that steals so many teens' lives.

"That's my childhood," Pendergrass said. "I'm that kid who didn't have a whole lot to do and had to find a program that could keep me out of trouble."

Pendergrass works to keep students involved. When his students don't have ride, he picks them up from their homes or a central location. He calls during the week to make sure they plan to attend Saturday's meeting. He talks to them about their grades and behavior in school.

He has 22 students registered with the program and typically works with 5 to 10 kids on any given Saturday. He teaches them how to use manual 35mm cameras, digital cameras and editing software.

In addition to archiving pictures, they shoot everything from YMCA activities to -- occasionally -- celebrity events, such as Chris Brown's concert at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre last summer and the Venus and Serena Williams exhibition at Bobcats Arena in December. The students will also shoot events for the CIAA next week.

Of course, the students love taking photos of celebrities the most, but Pendergrass stresses the importance of meeting local professionals as well because it exposes them to new careers.

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