The 28 young men of the Renaissance Academy entered the banquet hall Aug. 1, wearing khaki slacks, white shirts and purple neckties.
A couple of hours later they emerged from the evening of awards, encouragement, recognition and advice looking distinguished in black blazers with the Renaissance Academy’s first-ever shield on the pocket covering their hearts.
The blazers symbolize a protective covering for his charges — middle- and high-school black males — who have spent the past school term learning to become bridge builders and cycle breakers, explained Jerel “Tank” Rhodes, academy founder.
The symbols in the shield represent valor, Christian manhood, civic leadership and togetherness, said Rhodes, a Roanoke City Schools guidance coordinator. Wear the jackets proudly by walking tall, displaying character and forgetting obstacles, Rhodes advised as he helped the students with their jackets.
On Aug. 18, the Renaissance Academy launches its third season of engaging young black men in middle- and high school through a tour of colleges, a series of community service activities, job shadowing, workshops and events promoting academic, social and financial skills.
The new term may include an additional college tour, younger participants and more monthly events, according to Rhodes.
In a video made for the “Donning of the Blazer” banquet, the students said their involvement has built up their confidence levels, encouraged them to challenge themselves more, and helped them be more respectful of others and kinder to siblings. They said they also learned to how better manage their money and how to tie neckties.
The activities, speakers, and mentors, they said, aroused interests in such careers as medicine, engineering, entertainment, sports management, corporate business, marine biology, architecture, law enforcement and health and medicine.
In addition, most of the young men said the academy has positively affected their academics.
Felicia Monroe noted that her son Ricardo Graves, a Northside High School junior, has shown more interest in school and his grades have improved since he’s been in the academy.
“Honor roll to be exact,” Ricardo quickly interjected.
He is student president for the academy, and during the banquet he received an Endeavoring Beyond award for his persistence.
That award was one of four that Rhodes presented so the academy participants would “know they are noticed.”
For the same reason, Nasir Noel received a service and leadership recognition, Xavion Johnson received an outstanding character award and Ethan Hilton received the educational leadership citation.
The banquet also saw Rhodes’ dream of awarding scholarships came to fruition.
“My goal is for all graduating members to receive scholarships. I don’t want to talk about education and not support it,” Rhodes said after three Rebounding Roanoke and Optima Health Family Care scholarships were awarded.
The academy falls under the umbrella of Rebounding Roanoke, a nonprofit educational organization that Rhodes formed to address what he calls “the challenges and issues that impede the realization of the full potential of the valley’s youth population.”
Optima Health, a care provider for low-income women and children, is a supporter of Rebounding Roanoke’s activities.
Two $500 scholarships were awarded to non-Renaissance Academy students: Marcellus Jones, a Northside High School graduate who will attend James Madison University in the fall, and Bryan Phifer, a North Cross graduate who will attend Hampden-Sydney College.
Academy member Ethan Hilton, a 2014 William Fleming High School graduate, received a $1,000 scholarship. He will attend the University of Virginia.
Of the scholarships, male mentors and other support his programs are receiving, Rhodes remarked: “People are seeing a vision and are willing to grab a shovel and dig with us.”
Banquet speaker Mike Hamlar, a Roanoke Valley businessman and civic leader, talked about education, leadership and perseverance, advising “you can never have too much education.”
Education, said Hamlar, a former student of Rhodes, “is something people can’t take from you. They can take your house; they can take your car, but they can’t take your education.”
But, he added, “college is not for everyone” and encouraged developing a backup plan that could include a trade such as an electrician or plumber.
While encouraging the young men to dream big and to learn from failures, he also advised “don’t take anybody for granted as being your friend.”