NewsEducationPreK-12 / April 14, 2014

WFYI #TruColors: Jalen's Journey

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Sam Klemet
WFYI #TruColors: Jalen's Journey

Violence in Indianapolis has become a recurring headline, including the death of a father to be who was allegedly shot and killed by a 16-year old in a random attack.

City and community leaders continue to point to the need for programs to push young people in a more productive direction.  Many of the victims and perpetrators are teens and people in their early 20s.

But, there are some young people working to make positive changes in the city.

As part of WFYI’s TruColors series, WFYI’s Sam Klemet is talking to teens who are leading efforts for a safer, healthier Indianapolis and has this report.

Inside an empty classroom at Gambold Preparatory Magnet High School, Jalen Vaughn fires up his laptop, adjusts his brown glasses, settles in a chair, and starts reading an original poem.

Vaughn writes to reflect on where he came from, declare where he is going, and as a statement of triumph.

The 15-year-old sophomore connected with poetry while studying Shakespeare as a freshman.

His writings started as assignments, but he fell in love with the way poetry makes him feel.

Now, Vaughn has an 18-page collection of original works.

"The fact that I can put my history and my past on paper allowed me to overcome missing the street life," said Vaughn.  "It helped me get away from all the negative by putting it down and thinking about it why I'm not doing the negatives anymore."

Vaughn’s writings often portray darkness and heartbreak, because for a while that’s all he knew. He was born in Indianapolis when his mother was just 14-years old.  Eventually the family moved to North Carolina where his stepfather served as a marine, and then returned to Indy to live with his grandmother.

"Times had gotten really hard because my mother hadn't been able to find a job, my stepdad didn't have a job, and we we're trying to raise my little brother," Vaughn said. "So, at the end of the day I stepped up and said 'I can't be a kid anymore,' even though I wanted to at the age of 9, 10.  I had to be the person who stepped up and said, 'well, I'm going to get a job."

So he did.  Not even old enough to have a driver’s learning permit, Jalen turned to drug dealing as a way to make money.

"I was around people who sold drugs when I was nine and I started selling drugs when I was around 12," he said. "I started off selling weed, but from 13-and-a-half to 14, I started selling crack."

Some days, Vaughn made up to $500 selling.  But, the hustle came with a price.  When he was 14, Vaughn was arrested.  He spent a few hours in a holding cell before going home and served three months on probation.

That was Vaughn’s wake up call.

"Yea, selling drugs might make you money, but it's not a long term situation because everybody that I knew who did, they are either in jail, dead, not doing it anymore because they couldn't get far enough without watching their back 24/7," he said.  "That really drives you crazy because you are always paranoid.  You always have to watch your left and right."

And so he enrolled at Gambold, and with the help of Principal Shane O’Day, Jalen started mapping a different path for his life.

"While Jalen is still a youth, he understands that we need great people in order to do great things," said O'Day.  "Indianapolis is on the cusp where we can do great things in our city.  If you look at the newspapers today, looking at the crime, looking at the violence, we need strong youth advocates and I think Jalen plays that role well."

Over the past two years, Jalen has immersed himself in poetry, is getting all A's and B's, is active in community service, and runs track.  

And as he walks by one of the front offices at Gambold, Vaughn stops to point out a picture of his robotics team and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard taken after one of their competitions.

"It's all the robotics teams in the city and this year, our second year doing it, our team got third place," he said.

Vaughn also is serving in student government, including a term as treasurer.

"It gave me a way to put my word into things and allowed me to see changes that needed to be made," he said.  "I don't like sitting on the sidelines when I know there is a problem and I know I have good ideas for how to help solve it and I can't do anything because I don't have a position of power."

On this day, he stays late after school as to help organize a school dance.

Vaughn – who once turned to the streets to make money – discusses the student government’s financial outlook with student council advisor, Kathy Jesse. 

Jesse also is Vaughn’s English teacher who works with him on his poetry.

"When I first met him, he would tell you that he didn't have a future," said Jesse.

Now, she sees a young man with limitless potential.

"He did make that change on his own.  Nobody takes credit for this except for Jalen," said Jesse.  "I've known very few, in 10 years at IPS, very few teenagers who can say, this is my vision for myself and nothing is going to stop me."

Vaughn has big plans for his future. After graduating in 2016, he wants to go to the Air Force Academy or Virginia Military Institute and eventually work for some kind of federal program such as the CIA or FBI.

In preparation for military life, Jalen has taken up running to get into shape.  He runs about three times a week and uses the time, similar to how he uses poetry, as an outlet.

"Just seeing what I came from and seeing how much I evolved, it feels good when I run because it allows me to think and reflect upon it," said Vaughn.  "That's what a lot of people can't do.  They can't reflect and implement the reflection into their life, and that's what I did."

And even in a young life full of experiences, it feels like Jalen Vaughn is just getting started.  

 

 

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