C.J. Stewart knows firsthand how tough it is to climb out of poverty and overcome obstacles to fulfill one’s dreams, and he’s devoted his life to helping kids chart a course for making that …
C.J. Stewart knows firsthand how tough it is to climb out of poverty and overcome obstacles to fulfill one’s dreams, and he’s devoted his life to helping kids chart a course for making that happen.
For the past three years, the former Chicago Cubs outfielder has visited fourth- and fifth-graders at Allatoona Elementary School in Acworth once a month to mentor them and help mold them into future community leaders.
“The kids in this group are the ones with leadership potential, the ones we think would change the world for better,” counselor Marcia Guse said. “It doesn’t matter if they are poor or rich, but most of them are living in poverty.”
Stewart, 42, uses his experiences as a black male growing up in a dangerous housing project in west Atlanta, along with a book, “The Energy Bus,” to encourage the kids to rise above their circumstances, become successful and use that success to give back to their community.
“My primary focus is focusing on their context so that the content makes sense, focusing on the ‘why,’ which helps them understand the ‘what’ – what they need to be doing, trying to help them understand ‘why are you even alive?’” he said.
The framework of knowing why he was here then what he wanted to do with his life led him to people who could help him when the right time came, and that formula enabled Stewart to escape the poverty that many students are living in today.
“Looking back on the steps, that’s what it was – me knowing my ‘why,’ me being courageous enough to state my ‘what’ and then also when I’m in front of the right people, to be able to share that,” he said.
Since August, the former Bartow County resident, who lived about two miles from the school, has spent an hour a month building relationships with the 30 kids in his mentoring class.
He’s also been teaching them the 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work and Team With Positive Energy from the book, which is about a man with a high-powered job who had to ride the bus to work one day when his car broke down and was upset because the kind of people who rode it didn’t have important jobs like his.
“What ended up happening was he ended up developing relationships with people that he otherwise would not have developed a relationship with, and they gave him 10 rules to help him in his life that made his life better, and it gave him a lot of energy,” he told the kids.
Stewart reviewed the first five rules:
Because his parents drove his bus for so long, “it made me dislike school,” he said.
“I didn’t like school because I felt like they were driving me to a place that I didn’t want to go,” he said. “I didn’t want to learn how to read and do math and become a doctor or a lawyer, and they were really focused on me doing what they said so I could make a lot of money, and I wanted to do things that make me happy and to serve people.”
He also explained how having a passion for something will help them say no to drugs, smoking and other bad things in the future.
“That is going to help you go in the right direction,” he said.
The mentor then introduced the students to Bartow County Community Redevelopment Coordinator Patrick Nelson – “somebody you want to be on your bus” – who explained how he helps people into better housing situations.
“[My job] is to make sure that this county is providing as many opportunities to you guys, as you grow up, as we can so that when you grow up, you want to stay here, and you want to raise your family here, and you want to reinvest in the people that are in your seats right now,” he said.
Nelson said one of his job responsibilities is to “make sure that our bus as a community is driving in the right direction.”
“I get to work with a bunch of different nonprofit organizations and government and corporations and individuals who are making sure that we are all pulling in the same direction, driving the bus the same way,” he said. “We get to make sure that the efforts that are being made are taking us the way we want to go.”
He also told the students that finishing school is the “No. 1 thing, no matter what you want to do.”
“There are so many opportunities right here in Bartow County as long as you get through high school,” he said. “There are so many things that you can do.”
Stewart ended his time with the future leaders by explaining how the word “passion” comes from the word “suffering” so “what you’re suffering from is what you’re passionate about.”
“What I suffered from as a child, and I’m still working on even as an adult, is I didn’t have people that were intentionally pushing me in the direction they knew I was going,” he said. “So my passion is around helping people, especially youth, intentionally go into the Air Force and be the highest-ranking officer there. I want the highest-ranking officer in the Air Force to come from Allatoona Elementary School. I want the best deejay in the entire world to come from Allatoona Elementary School.”
He also told them they wouldn’t meet in April due to testing, but in May, they’ll take a field trip to Georgia’s Own Credit Union in Atlanta and will finish discussing the final five rules: “Post a sign that says ‘No energy vampires allowed’ on your bus,” “Enthusiasm attracts more passengers and energizes them during the ride,” “Love your passengers,” “Drive with purpose” and “Have fun and enjoy the ride.”
Fifth-grader Sage Talbott said he’s “learning more about responsibility and stuff” from Stewart.
“I really like him,” the 10-year old said. “He’s really nice, and I like how he brought ‘The Energy Bus’ a lot. He’s really nice.”
Stewart – who got drafted by the Cubs at age 18, decided to go to college, got drafted by them again and played with them from 1996 to 1998 – began working with the school after Joe Frank Harris Jr. heard about the work he does with Atlanta’s inner-city youth through his nonprofit, LEAD.
Stewart met with Allatoona Principal Jim Bishop and learned all he could about the school and community, including the level of poverty.
“I lived in this community, and I lived a life that shielded me from the hurt and the pain that was here, but when I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it,” he said after the mentoring session. “So now I have a responsibility to do something about it.”
Now a Cobb County resident, Stewart was surprised when he discovered the ethnicity of the students at the school.
“Spending so much time in Atlanta, the face of poverty is African-American,” he said. “So even when I came and was exposed to the school, my assumption was that I was being asked to come in to serve a school full of African-American students that were living at or below poverty level.”
But he said he was “very shocked” to find the “face of poverty” in this community was white.
“I lived down the street from here, and it was almost like it was boarded off,” he said. “Like there are no barriers that boards it, but you have to literally drive into the community to feel it, but on the outside, it looks like everything’s OK. But our kids are struggling.”
Stewart said their battle is “just helping them to understand that you don’t have to be embarrassed of your struggle.”
“You don’t have to be ashamed of it; in fact, it’s helping you to develop the grit that you need to fill your bus, to be successful but then also making sure they understand they have an obligation to give back to Bartow County,” he said, noting the most important thing for them to understand is “I’m here for them.”
He said his mentees are “amazing.”
“I have successfully fought back tears when I come here just because what I see in them are kids that are very conscious of their struggle at a young age,” he said.
Guse said she thinks Stewart’s program is “wonderful.”
“We see the kids in the hallways just doing what he’s said, just being respectful, helping the person that is being bullied, helping cafeteria people,” she said. “They have this conception of leadership already.”