FEEDing Our Friends

By Brad McEwen

The skinny teenager with the long blonde hair stood in stark contrast to the twenty some-odd young men seated before him.

His khaki shorts and red polo were a far cry from the work pants, rugged boots and welding smocks worn by the class from Albany’s Turner Job Corps.

But the gleam of purpose in his eyes projected an air of authority that was undeniable.

While most kids his age would likely be fighting a small tremor of fear as they prepared to address a group of strangers this size, Albany’s Ollie Rosen coolly surveyed the audience before stepping forward and confidently explaining that he was standing in the Turner Job Corps rec center auditorium on a bright July morning for a reason. He was on a mission.

The 17 year-old was there to tell those young men—working diligently to turn their lives around and begin the journey to a better tomorrow—how his recent decision to leave the comfort of the Deerfield Windsor private school he had attended since kindergarten had opened his eyes to a different picture of his community—a picture that included young men and women who often went without food and who lacked many of the basic necessities that has always been so abundant in his life.

With a righteous earnestness that often seems the sole domain of educated and enlightened teenagers, Ollie told them matter-of-factly that he was standing before those men because he had come to realize that the privileged life he had led as a member of a well-educated and affluent family, had afforded him opportunities that many of his new classmates at Westover and throughout this community simply don’t have access to.

And in his mind, and in his heart, he needed to do something about that.

Such was the scene I witnessed when I recently accompanied young Ollie Rosen out to Turner Job Corps to get a firsthand view of the FEED Our Friends program the high-school student recently founded.

“FEED Our Friends is an eight-week summer program at Turner Job Corps, and we have anywhere from I’d say five to twenty-five kids who attend each week,” Ollie explained when the two of us sat down discuss the particulars of the mentoring and motivational program. “They come in at 10 in the morning and we have speakers lined up, a different speaker each week, and they speak to the kids and share their personal experiences.

“It’s a semi-circle set-up by design so they can really connect—the kids and the speaker.

“Normally I’ll introduce the speaker, and if we have new kids then I’ll explain FEED Our Friends because it’s new and a lot of them don’t know what we’re doing. FEED stands for Fellowship, Education, Encouragement and Direction and that’s what it’s all about.”

When explaining the genesis of FEED Our Friends, Ollie always begins by sharing some of his background and explaining to his audience how the program really began when he made the difficult decision a few months ago to leave the sheltered confines of Deerfield-Windsor so he could attend Westover and get into the Move On When Ready partnership between the Dougherty County School System and the community’s two post-secondary institutions.

According to Ollie, that decision—which has helped him earn enough college credits that he’ll have an associate’s degree this coming December, despite technically only being half way through his senior year of high school—removed him from a very insular environment, to one where he was exposed to things he wasn’t necessarily expecting.

“I grew up all my life in Deerfield, which is a private school,” Ollie said. “That was a very special experience I’d say. But it’s not necessarily the best experience because it’s a small group of people you’ve grown up with your whole life. These are the only people you know, the 50 or 60 people in your grade.

“It’s just a very sheltered environment; it’s like living in a bubble.

“So me coming out of this very sheltered environment into public school, when I decided to move to Westover, I just saw almost a true reality—hearing kids talk about not eating the night before or that their parents got arrested and that they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.

“Coming from that extremely privileged, sheltered environment to this one, where there’s so much hardship, I just thought, ‘I have the resources necessary to help these people, so let’s give it a shot.’”

The resources Ollie is referring to are the strong emotional, social and financial support structures that have provided him with a quality education, shelter, other basic necessities, and numerous networking opportunities that will no doubt continue to help shape his bright future.

“I’ve had a great family to teach me things,” he said. “I feel lucky because family has a lot to do with it. They’ve always stressed the importance of good grades, going to school, staying focused on what you want to do. And I feel lucky that I have gotten that natural insight and drive.

“I’ve just always had a lot of support.”

While considering how fortunate he has been to have such a strong support system, Ollie said he decided to start a program where he could provide some kind of support to kids who didn’t grow up like he did.

So after pulling in some of those very resources he feels blessed to have access to—primarily his father, businessman Lane Rosen, and his grandmother Lorie Farkas, affectionately known as ‘LaLa’—Ollie settled on the idea of connecting kids with folks in the community who were in a position to inspire and help them and to present that program through Turner Job Corps.

“I am who I am because of my family,” Ollie said. “There’s a large network I have access to. If I’m interested in the medical field, my family will most likely know somebody who’s a doctor that I can go and talk to and then gain insight from.

“These kids may not even have a family, so how are they going to connect? They don’t even know where to begin to get in touch with somebody to help kick start their journey to accomplishing their goals.

“When I wanted to start FEED Our Friends I went to my grandmother and she knew exactly what to do and who to talk to.

“She had a program at Turner years ago, and she’s well-known there, so that’s what we settled on. She knew everybody and it was easy. We had a foot in the door. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

But of course before things could move forward, Ollie had to convince members of the job corps leadership that his new program had merit—something he was ultimately able to do after meeting some of the folks his grandmother had relationships with.

As Ollie tells it, the idea was well-received because it fits in with the larger mission of the job corps.

“Turner is all about helping kids, young men,” he explained. “Immediately they were interested in an idea to help accomplish their goal, accomplish their mission. But I also believe my young age and my willingness to help others, impressed them.

“I think it’s important for the kids to see another young person that is doing grown-up things, if you will. I think Turner liked that aspect of it.”

Once the leadership at Turner Job Corps signed off, Ollie’s next step was to start tracking down speakers willing to take part in the program and share their wisdom and guidance with the students.

“These kids, they want to do something but they don’t have anybody to talk to,” Ollie said. “Our speakers are from varied backgrounds and disciplines and try to cover a broad spectrum to expose these kids and broaden their horizons.

“It’s about these speakers imparting these gifts to the students because they may not have had a family to teach them about things and provide them with opportunities.

“At the end, the kids get to ask questions and by the end of it the speaker and the kids have made a connection and they’re comfortable with each other. It’s a fluid transaction. It’s a really interactive experience.”

Ollie said the speakers that are selected are people who have achieved things in their lives, regardless of whatever hardships they may have faced, and who now have a desire to help others find success in their lives—individuals like Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany Executive Director Marvin Laster and Darrell Sabbs, community benefits director at Phoebe Putney.

“The speakers tell the guys mainly that you have control over your own life,” Ollie said. “You may be in a bad situation now, or you may not be where you want to be, but you can still reach your goals.

“Marvin Laster talked about growing up in the hood, basically, and now he’s the CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs. He didn’t have the best family situation, just like some of the kids might not. Now, he did say he’s not doing exactly what he wants to be doing, but he’s still gonna keep moving forward and working toward his eventual goal.

“I feel like he could connect with the kids, speaking about the things he’s gained, like his shoe collection and everything. The kids got excited about that.

“Basically all the speakers talk about their difficult journeys into success. It may not have been the easiest, it may not have been the most fun experience, but when you reach your goals and you start seeing your ideas manifest, then it’s just an amazing experience.”

The notion of reaching goals despite difficult circumstances is a common theme with most of the speakers and Ollie said hearing those stories also had an impact on him and further opened his eyes to how circumstances can shape a person’s outlook.

“One of the speakers he was talking about basically the struggles of growing up in poverty,” Ollie said. “It was a very visceral session. He asked them, ‘Who’s ever had to sell drugs?’ ‘Do you think selling drugs is bad?’ And some of the kids raised their hands. They said, ‘I sold drugs and I don’t think it’s bad.’

“Of course he was like, ‘How do you not think selling drugs is bad?’ The kid was like, ‘When you’re taking care of your mom, who can’t pay the light bill,’ they don’t see that as bad. So you can’t really blame them.

“Then he was like, ‘Who’s ever had to break into somebody’s house?’ The kid said, ‘I have, but I never wanted to do that. I felt terrible about doing it.’ But when that’s the only way you have to survive and being a kid and thinking that’s the only way to pay the light bill, that’s crazy.

“That was a shock for me to hear. That was a very potent taste of reality. I never dreamed FEED Our Friends would bring out these raw emotions.”

Although he might not have expected that level of emotional engagement, Ollie said he did understand that connecting on an emotional level was going to be an important part of the mission’s success.

In fact, when I asked him about the reception he received when he shared his story—a story about a life much different than those of the kids in the audience—Ollie said he wasn’t afraid he wouldn’t connect because he knew the emotions behind the stories were feelings that everyone shares.

“Really the message I wanted to get across was, ‘You may be in a place where you don’t think you can escape, you can escape,’” he said. “’But you may have to do something extremely drastic. Don’t let the fear of what you have to do to get out of that situation deter you.’

“I grew up with the same 50 or 60 people my whole life and barely knew anybody outside of that group and I decided to leave and inundate myself in a completely foreign environment. That was a big thing for me to do, I feel. That’s what I was trying to explain to them.

“Of course they’re rolling their eyes at me because I said I went to private school,” he continued. “That’s like unimaginable to some of those kids. But I actually went into some detail about some of the things that I’ve had to overcome in my life. My sister had medical issues growing up and I had to spend my weekends in Atlanta in the hospital with her. My dad had cancer and it came back.

“I said, ‘My turmoil and my adversity may not compare to some of yours, but pain is pain and we’ve all felt it.’”

Listening to Ollie and hearing the passion he has for what he’s started I couldn’t help but be impressed by the young man who had put so much thought into what he is doing with FEED Our Friends.

At an age when most young guys are thinking about girls or hanging with their buds, and barely starting to consider that there might be something after high school, Ollie is just months away from earning an associate’s degree and his focus is on possibly attending Brown Medical School and on ways he can improve the world around him.

I asked him about that and what I got was another well-thought answer that belied the fact that I was chatting with a 17 year-old kid.

“What I found as I’ve matured more and more is that there are two aspects to becoming a man or maturing,” he began. “That’s perfecting yourself, or learning about yourself, getting to know yourself and what you like, what you want to do. And the second, and arguably more important aspect to me, is to help others realize this about themselves and to help bring them with you.

“I’ve always been taught to help others and treat others how you want to be treated. My family just did a great job raising me to be empathetic and to care for others. This is just the first real-life manifestation of all that teaching and the natural inclination to help others.”

With that kind of motivation driving his actions it’s not surprising that FEED Our Friends has come to fruition and is having a positive impact, even though Ollie couldn’t imagine that kind of success when he started out.

“Everybody has a perfect vision of what’s going to happen, but reality rarely fits that vision,” he said. “I actually think it’s turned out better than I expected. I don’t think I had an accurate imagination going into it, but it’s become something.

“Actually seeing the program come to life and the kids become animated and excited about it, I didn’t realize how powerful that would be.

“It’s surreal because four months ago I was sitting on the couch playing video games and now I’m making a difference in somebody’s life. I mean not necessarily me—I couldn’t do it by myself—but to see those kids and their faces brighten up when the speaker is talking to them and they finally see a little bit of light that their situation doesn’t have to be permanent, is amazing.

“Just to have had that idea and see it come to life and see how the kids are reacting to it and improving and progressing, that’s incredible.”

While he isn’t sure what the future will hold once the initial eight week program concludes, Ollie said he is committed to keeping things going even though he has a full plate taking classes at Albany State and preparing for his next step.

“We know we want to do it every summer for sure,” he said. “The reason we did it this summer, even though I’m taking summer semester at ASU, is that it’s more laid back than fall semester. I’ll be at ASU again in the fall so this fit everybody’s schedule better to do it in the summer.

“But who knows, maybe we will do one in the fall. One of the speakers might step up to the plate and say, ‘I want to do this in the fall, do it year round.’ Then they can oversee it instead of me being there every time. If I really trusted the person, then I would be okay with that.

“Of course there would be a little disconnect because I wouldn’t be there every single time, but as long as the kids are learning what they need to learn and they’re being provided the opportunities they need, then I don’t see a problem with it.”

Judging by the excitement that was clearly evident as he discussed FEED Our Friends, I have no doubt that Ollie will do whatever he can to keep the program alive. And as far as I’m concerned that’s a huge win, not only for Turner Job Corps but for our community as a whole.

Knowing that we have an impressive young man like Ollie Rosen, who’s looking outside of himself and putting his focus on helping others, is truly inspiring. I think we can all learn a little from Ollie.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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