CINCINNATI -- Jayren Andrews grew up in what he calls the “slums of Avondale” and could have ended up like other young men he knows from the neighborhood -- dead, behind bars or “just lost.”
Instead, Andrews recently completed his freshman year at Northern Kentucky University and -- at the age of 18 -- was honored at United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Leaders & Legends Awards luncheon.
United Way gave him the Youth Leadership Award for his work as one of two youth representatives on the Child Poverty Collaborative Steering Committee.
Andrews accepted the award before hundreds of local business people and community leaders at the Duke Energy Convention Center with his proud mom in the audience.
I watched him get that award, and I wanted to know more. So I sat down with him for an interview and asked: What made the difference?
“I would say hope,” he told me. “No matter what I got in the tank, I’m going to give you everything plus more. If you do it to your best ability, no one can stop you from reaching your full potential.”
Andrews isn’t just a teenage boy full of big talk.
His uncle, Cincinnati Police Officer Eddie Hawkins, said Andrews always has been the type of young man who goes beyond what is asked of him.
“We’ve been pretty much joined at the hip since he got here,” said Hawkins, who also is president of the Sentinel Police Association. “He’s one of those kids that you give him a task and say I need you to get this done, and he’ll get it done and then he’ll try to find a way to improve upon the task you’ve given him.”
That level of commitment -- coupled with Andrews’ own life experiences -- have made him an invaluable member of the Child Poverty Collaborative Steering Committee, said Ross Meyer, United Way’s vice president for community impact.
“He’s a pretty remarkable young man,” Meyer said. “The kids that we’re talking about are him and his friends. He is remarkable in his leadership and his commitment to the community and his willingness to really share his voice and his story.”
‘Fresh thoughts’ and tough times
Community service is nothing new to Andrews. He began working with the Avondale Youth Council in high school and was president before he graduated. Avondale activist and resident Ozie Davis recommended Andrews for a spot on the Child Poverty Collaborative Steering Committee, and Andrews seized the opportunity.
“It was pretty humbling,” he said. “I found myself in a good place intellectually, and it was inspiring, too.”
Andrews saw his role as being the voice of experience, and he said he worked to communicate “fresh thoughts” during the group’s meetings.
“With people that have been doing the same type of work for a period of time, they’re already adapted to this cycle of thinking,” he said. “I tried to offer a new spark or flame when it comes to ideas.”
Hawkins pointed out that Andrews is the youngest of three children, which can be tough.
“When you’re the youngest you kind of get shunned,” Hawkins said.
Plus, things weren’t always easy at home.
“His mom is a single mom and went through some tough times,” Hawkins said.
Andrews said his mom worked whatever job she could -- and as many as she could -- to support the family.
He started working at a pretty young age to try to earn money to help out.
“He didn’t want to be a burden to his mom,” Hawkins said of his nephew. “I would tell him, ‘we may not be the richest folks. But you don’t have to work tirelessly to make ends meet.’”
Hawkins spoke at the United Way event about a time in high school when his nephew’s grades dropped a bit, and Hawkins gave him a hard time and said he needed to focus on school.
That’s when Hawkins realized that Andrews’ grades were suffering because the young man was spending so much time giving back to the community. And it’s awfully hard for an uncle who’s a public servant to get angry with that.
‘It’s not meant to be easy’
“He ain’t looking for no pity party. He ain’t looking for no handouts,” Hawkins said of his nephew. “He wants to make his own way.”
Still, Andrews is the first to say that he has had help along the way.
“I didn’t do this myself,” he said. “I’m not self made.”
Andrews said there are lots of people, young and old, who helped look out for him and guide him through his childhood.
“My mom, my mentors, the youth, my mentees, my family -- any and everyone that looked out for me in a good way and a bad way,” Andrews said. “I firmly believe it takes a village to raise a child.”
Even with all that support, though, Andrews said it hasn’t been easy to focus on school, family and community and get to where he is today.
“It’s not meant to be easy,” he said. “Things will get rough. At points in time of your life, you’ve just got to stick to the fight. When things get worse, you must not quit.”
Still, Andrews knows that never-give-up attitude can be tough for some kids to maintain when they don’t have enough to eat each evening or don’t know where they will sleep from night to night.
He is convinced the Child Poverty Collaborative is headed in the right direction, he said, and will be able to help thousands of children and their families lift themselves out of poverty.
“Where I’m from, you make use of what you’ve got,” he said. “You make the most out of it.”
That’s what Andrews believes the Child Poverty Collaborative will do with all of the research it has commissioned and the insights it has heard from people like him who have lived in poverty.
Meyer said the collaborative will keep talking to Andrews and other young people and adults who have lived in poverty and know first-hand what kind of supports helped them.
“You have to truly take the time to influence a young soul at a very young age because they’re so exposed to so much,” Andrews said, stressing that’s what worked for him. “I had people who would see potential in me before I even knew about it.”
Let’s hope more of us can see that potential in our region’s children so we can have more success stories like Jayren Andrews and fewer young people getting lost in hopelessness and despair.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.