In the coming days, Danavian Jones will stand before his classmates at Boston’s Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School and deliver a spoken-word performance. Called “A Troubled Story,” it describes the eighth-grader’s struggle to understand his place in the world.
“I used to think my life was a tragedy,” it reads. “I wished I was a prince so I was called your majesty.”
A year ago, Jones probably wouldn’t have taken the time to write such a personal piece, he said. But as he graduated Tuesday from a new program for at-risk students, Jones had gained a self-assurance and focus he didn’t know he had.
Jones was among 46 students in the inaugural class of Enhancing Potential, Inspiring Change, known as EPIC, which seeks to build confidence in children ages 11 to 14.
The program takes an innovative approach to recruitment, offering students up to $800 for taking part in hopes of instilling leadership skills and connecting their families with social workers and other assistance.
Many students in the program have experienced violence, either at home, on the streets, or through bullying, said Andrea Perry, executive director of YouthConnect, a Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston program that oversees EPIC.
“Unfortunately for some of these kids, the experiences are so common that it seems as though they’re normal,” she said. EPIC tries to help students shake that perception.
Many students mentioned the financial incentives as a reason they got involved. But all said the program wound up giving them something far more valuable.
Aaliyah Colon of Mattapan, who spoke at the graduation ceremony, said she certainly thought of the cash when she made the decision to join. Now, she said, it barely crosses her mind.
Colon said the program’s detailed discussions about career preparation helped her refine her plans and expectations. She is entering Boston Arts Academy next year to study drama, but also plans to go into medicine and become a doctor.
“I learned that if I want something, I have to be determined to get there,” she said.
The students’ stipend, and the program’s other costs, are covered by a $175,000 annual grant from John Hancock, which has pledged to support the program for four years.
Thomas Crohan, an assistant vice president and counsel at John Hancock, said the company sees value in efforts that stabilize city neighborhoods.
“We need to make strategic investments at this early age to make sure they are making good decisions to affect their future,” he said. “They have all the potential in the world, and it’s about opening up the doors of opportunity.”
Law enforcement and city officials see the program as a public safety initiative.
“This is what stops the violence,” said the Boston Police Department’s superintendent in chief, William Gross. “An understanding of your fellow man and a respect for your fellow man.”
The program began this summer with intensive programming at several sites and continued through the school year. Students regularly checked in at Boys & Girls Club sites, and their families kept in touch with social workers.
At one gathering, the students went to John Hancock’s headquarters for a meeting. At another, they met with a panel of professionals who told them about their jobs.
Jones was struck by a computer scientist who spoke about coding. A longtime video game enthusiast, Jones thought that would be a good field for him. “I want to infuse that with my engineering skills so I can build something that everybody can use.” He’s ready to take on the challenge next year, when he enters high school.
Jones’s spoken-word piece takes darker turns, revealing feelings of self-doubt and confusion. But he speaks eagerly about the piano accompaniment he’s planning, or how he expects to modulate his voice when he performs.
EPIC has helped him lose the feeling that he is “something nobody wants,” he said. Now, he believes, “I am somebody who is actually going to be useful in the community.”