Noah McQueen used to spend more time fighting and getting arrested than getting good grades and listening to advice. He changed households and public schools 10 times before he landed at the Maryland Juvenile Justice Cheltenham Youth Center.
But times have changed.
“Do you need a ride back to the White House?” a presidential aide asked McQueen, 19, as he stood inside Eddie’s Hair Design in Adams Morgan on a recent day.
“No, I have my own car now,” he responded.
McQueen didn’t need a barber; he had a fresh haircut. He was there to work. McQueen was there with Broderick Johnson, head of the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, to be a role model to students from Marie Reed Elementary School. The initiative was launched last year to improve educational and job opportunities for young men of color.
White House officials, including President Obama, have worked hard to help McQueen. His life changed three years ago, when, as a student at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, he began mentoring children at nearby Barack Obama Elementary.
“I get choked up . . . when I think about where I was,” McQueen said as he reflected on a troubled childhood that included several suspensions, arrests and other run-ins with the law.
Now McQueen is a freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He graduated in May from Wise, where he finished with a 3.25 grade-point average even though his freshman and sophomore years were academic disasters.
McQueen came to the attention of the White House because he was part of several mentoring groups. He was selected to participate in My Brother’s Keeper and, in February, the president interviewed McQueen about his life.
McQueen gives most of the credit for his turnaround to getting to know God while he was in the youth center.
“My favorite biblical character is Paul,” McQueen said. “He did so much when he was incarcerated, and when I was in Cheltenham, I made goals that I thought that I would never attain, like make the honor roll, play football, write for the newspaper and graduate from high school.
“I did a lot of bouncing around,” he added. “I was always getting into trouble, mainly fighting because I was angry.”
McQueen became part of My Brother’s Keeper last year. During the Christmas holidays, he got the chance to take his mother and his grandmother to the White House. He said his life has totally changed.
Johnson said in an interview that the program “is about one-on-one relationships. . . . Young people need that adult in their lives. Maybe they don’t have a relationship with their father — the president talks about that all of the time — but there were other people in his life.”
McQueen has been president of Men of AMATE, a mentoring program at Wise. He is also a junior deacon at his church and a camp counselor with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s summer program at the Wayne K. Curry Sports and Learning Center.
Johnson looked at McQueen like a proud father. “He understands that people care about him at the highest levels of government,” he said. “This is not fluff. This is real.”
From sharing meals to playing basketball with Obama and the other men at the White House, it is clear that McQueen has impressed people.
“When you don’t have a father in your life, it is always great to have other men in your life,” McQueen said. “I mentor grown people as well as young people because of my story. It reaches a lot of people.”
By Hamil R. Harris
Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.