BETHLEHEM - Breaking the cycle of teen violence, especially among minorities.
It's one of many topics NAACP leaders discussed Sunday afternoon at their annual Freedom Fund banquet at the Four Points Sheraton in Bethlehem. The group's leaders said teens need successful role models, but after high school, many successful students never return to the Lehigh Valley.
School guidance counselor Tonya Francis has seen gang activity increase in her 16 years here.
"I've seen it grow," she said. "I've seen where my kids are actually now talking about it."
Tonya Francis' kids aren't high schoolers. She works at Freemansburg Elementary School.
The struggle with the streets is something Freedom High senior Ashanti Littlejohn has written about in her poetry. The NAACP honored her for that work.
"I like being able to be that voice for people who can't really speak for themselves," she said.
According to NAACP leaders, many talented young people, like Littlejohn, go off to college and never come back to the Valley.
"We're losing them left and right," said Bethlehem NAACP president Esther Lee. "Kids go away and want to be successful and they won't think of coming back here."
When asked why successful students don't return, Lee said: "There's nothing here for them."
For all races, the employment picture here is weak. Lee said it's even harder for minorities.
"You almost have to recommend someone of color for a task, to serve on a board," she said. "That should never have to be."
Francis said a large, and successful, professional class of minorities is the way to inspire kids to stay off the streets.
"It's huge because our kids need good role models," she said, "and by seeing people who have actually had a dream and they've been able to accomplish their dream, and then to come back, it just opens up a whole new world."
Ashanti Littlejohn hopes to be one of those role models. After studying medicine at Drexel, she wants to return to her adopted hometown.
"My life changed when I moved down here, being all honest," she said. "I want to come back to the place and give back a little bit to the community."
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