LOWELL — Inspired by the best-seller “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” a memoir of two city youths who stumble on their journey to manhood, four local teenagers joined on a yearlong adventure that culminated last Wednesday with the author’s visit to Lowell.
“We wanted to take a step toward something new and different and bring the community together,” said April Rom, 17, of Lowell, one of the Greater Lowell Technical High School students who helped bring Moore to Lowell.
“That’s one of the points he makes in the book: Don’t wait for something to happen, just do it.”
The book explores the lives of two teens who share the same name and similar backgrounds — both were raised by single mothers in poor, crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhoods; both were smart kids who floundered in school; and both ran into trouble with the police. But the parallels end there. One teen — the author — was sent to military school, where he found a sense of purpose that led to success; the other drifted into a life of crime that led to a murder conviction.
Moved by the book, Rom, together with Cody Kuenzler and Amber Livingston, both of Dracut, and Michael Roman of Lowell, spent months seeking support from area law enforcement agencies, local banks, and business leaders to bring the author to Greater Lowell.
“Before I read this book, I didn’t really care about academics,” said Livingston, 17, who plans to be a graphic designer. “It made me really think about my life, about what I’m doing now and how it will impact my life later. I thought it would help other kids, too, help them really focus on what they want to do in the future.”
Kenneth Lavallee, Lowell Police Department superintendent, was the first to make a funding commitment. On a break from his summer job after his freshman year, Kuenzler, who is now a junior at Lowell Tech, rode his skateboard to meet with the city’s top law enforcement officer.
“It was an easy decision,” Lavallee said of the $5,000 he contributed from the Police Department’s Law Enforcement Trust Fund, which gets cash seized in drug investigations. “It’s a story that I think needed to be told to a larger audience.”
Initially, the teenagers wanted Moore to speak at their school. But what started as a small project guided by John Gibson and Jennie Flood — the English teachers who introduced the teens to the book — evolved into a community event, galvanizing youths throughout Greater Lowell.
Ultimately, the students raised enough money — $30,000 — to pay Moore’s fee to address an audience of 2,500, nearly filling Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
The students wanted to reach out into a community that has seen violence, drugs, and gangs take over many of its neighborhoods — Lowell alone is facing an opiate epidemic that last year claimed 31 lives — and spread the message that young people are masters of their own destiny, regardless of where they live or the challenges they face, Gibson explained. The students’ goal, he said, was to put the books in the hands of at least 5,000 people.
For the first time, Greater Lowell Technical High School, which draws students from Dracut, Lowell, Tyngsborough, and Dunstable, took part in a schoolwide summer reading program. Dracut High School and Lowell High School soon joined the Wes Moore Project, as it came to be known, and students in those schools also read the memoir. Over the summer, the project became the focus of a communitywide read at Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, which held several book talks to explore the issues raised by Moore’s book.
“I am the Iraqi Wes Moore,” said Rafal Thaher, 18, a senior at Lowell High who fled Iraq with her family nearly three years ago. The book’s message of individual accountability and social responsibility resonated with her. “We have to take care of each other . . . and make the good choices,” said Thaher, who plans to be a family physician “to help other people.”
During his hourlong appearance last Wednesday, Moore, 34, implored the audience to consider their actions in the context of a greater purpose.
“In so many ways, in so many instances, the smallest interventions can make the biggest difference,” Moore said. “A good piece of advice: A smile when it’s needed the most. These are the things that can make a difference in the lives of others, that can make a community stronger.”
Interventions in his life — his mother’s decision to send him to military school; a cadet captain’s pledge to look after him; words of encouragement from demanding mentors — transformed Moore from a troubled youth to a Rhodes scholar, White House Fellow, Army combat veteran, and celebrated author.
The other Wes Moore, 36, became a drug dealer. He was convicted in 2001 of felony murder for his role in the killing of an off-duty Baltimore County police sergeant during a bungled jewelry heist, and was sentenced to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
The book forces readers to question why the two Wes Moores’ lives took divergent paths and how we as a society can help adolescents who are struggling to make the right choices.
According to Moore, the biggest issue facing today’s youth “is not the knowledge gap. And it’s not the technology gap. It’s the expectation gap . . . The chilling truth is that my story could have been his. The tragedy is that his story could have been mine.”
Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said he chose to support the Wes Moore Project with a $750 grant because his facility “is filled with people who have made wrong choices.”
Koutoujian, who oversees the House of Corrections in Billerica, said Moore’s appearance “gave us a great opportunity to refocus and understand why we do what we do. It’s not about locking someone up. It’s about changing their lives for the better.”
The author, who donates a portion of the proceeds from the book and his appearances to City Year and the US Dream Academy, said he is hopeful that his story will serve as a call to action for others to “Create your own plan, to act, and leave a legacy.
“To see this call to action being made real, to see people taking this call to action seriously, you have no idea how full that makes my soul,” Moore said at the end of his talk in Lowell. “I thank you.”