CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What a difference a couple of years have made in the life of Obi Henderson.
The Chicago native and 2009 graduate of Alabama A&M first came to Charleston a few years ago at age 25 to pursue an AmeriCorps internship.
He turned 26 a month after arriving. But as the result of what he calls a “bad decision” involving misuse of an AmeriCorps vehicle, he soon lost his internship and ended up homeless.
“Mentally I was preparing to, like, live in the wilderness, out in Montgomery,” Henderson recalled. “But I believe God has had some type of shield over me.”
Some acquaintances allowed him to stay in their home for several weeks, then Henderson moved into the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center men’s shelter in Charleston.
“For six months I lived with guys that were trying to get back on their feet but lacked the motivation. And worst of all, bedbugs. That was one of the harshest realities of my circumstances. Going to bed and having to put earplugs in my ears because the guy that was sleeping under me couldn’t breathe while he was asleep. And then to wake up in the morning and see welts over my arms and legs — it was hard.”
Still, he awoke every morning with determination.
“Once you’re at your lowest, you can only go up. So, every morning, I put on a shirt and tie and I began networking and channeling my vision of what it was I was trying to do,” said Henderson, now 28.
He took part in a computer building program through the Kanawha Institute of Social Research and Action, and was introduced to its savings program, which helped him launch a business he dubbed Innovative Events Consultation.
The aim of the company as described on its website — iecevents.com — is “to empower youth through workshops, after-school programs and events that encourage school pride and academic excellence. The goal of IEC is to improve our community through activities that build culture, character and intellect.”
He launched another program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called DREAMS, which stands for Diligently Reiterating Excellence through Academics, Mentoring and Scholastics. The program works with youths in economically disadvantaged communities to improve their leadership skills and encourage entrepreneurship.
The program’s home is at Capital High School, but it will expand in the new year to Chandler Academy Alternative Middle School, the Day Report Center and elsewhere.
He also started up the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast — King is Henderson’s personal hero — which takes place Jan. 19 at Capital High School and features an essay contest, an oratory contest of students reciting parts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a Unity Award.
If that isn’t enough, Henderson is the current reigning heavyweight champion of the Charleston Rough N’ Rowdy Brawl, a title he will defend Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center.
Oh, yeah, and he recently decided to run for Charleston City Council.
The young boy who grew up on the rough side of Chicago has come a ways.
Character and relationships
Henderson, dressed in a stylish slate-gray suit and tie, checks his phone as Capital High School students file into an auditorium one recent day.
They are members of a school group called Dreamchasers, which they developed through Henderson’s DREAMS program, to encourage at-risk students, to teach them entrepreneurship, help them to develop self-esteem and to keep them in school, working on their grades and bettering themselves.
Henderson himself got out of what he described as an “ominous” West Side neighborhood in Chicago, to earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Alabama A&M, in Huntsville.
One of his best friends growing up was shot and killed in Chicago while sitting in a car, he recalled. “Many of my childhood friends fell captive to the gang and drug lifestyle and met similar, horrific fates.”
On this day, Henderson had brought a guest speaker to talk to the students, Eric Murphy, a faculty member at West Virginia University and a Monongalia County extension agent for families and health.
“I’m going to talk to the students today about character development and the type of relationships they have with people and to help them identify the role that they play in those relationships. How you believe about yourself is the type of attraction you’ll have,” said Murphy, after Henderson greeted him with a handshake and shoulder bump.
“I just want them to have a clearer view of who they are and why they have the type of relationships they have in their life and a way to gain control of themselves,” Murphy said. “By being confident in who you are, I think it will help them navigate things a little healthier.”
Henderson introduced Murphy to the students.
“My whole purpose of developing a club here is to help improve leadership skills, teach you all how to be professionals and give you all the tools to become entrepreneurs. Aside from that, I want you all to be student leaders so we can change the culture that you all are currently engaged in.”
Henderson eyed the students.
“All my Dreamchasers, put your hands up,” he said. Hands go up among some of the 30 or so students in the seats.
“Everybody should have their hand up because everybody is trying to chase their dream, whether you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a football player. So, we’re going to start putting together some activities outside of school starting in 2015. This is the beginning of that.”
In the ring
Henderson has had some key allies in pursuing his own dreams, not the least of which have been his mother and father. “I’m just so thankful for my upbringing. My parents, they’re my strength.”
In Charleston, he got some early help and one of his first grants from the Rev. Matthew Watts and his HOPE Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that aims to empower the inner city through spiritual renewal, education, employment and training and economic development.
Henderson is also a firm believer in the discipline of personal fitness through boxing. So, some of his young charges regularly meet up with him to work out at Hometown Heroes Boxing Gym, 809 Wisteria Drive, in South Charleston.
One recent evening, Henderson, sweating profusely after peppering a punching bag for 15 minutes, talked about why he wants to attract students — especially young males — to the gym.
“This is definitely part of the Dreams program. This is exercise to complement what we do. So, on the one hand, when we’re at Capital High School or Chandler Alternative Middle School or the Day Report Center, in those facilities it’s all about improving grades, character building, leadership. And then we add a little twist to it with the business development with a niche in entrepreneurship.
“But here, this is a way for young people throughout the city to congregate, [create] fellowship and learn how to compete. Everyone’s a champion here,” said Henderson.
“Here everyone’s equal, everyone can learn at their own pace, and everyone’s encouraged.
“This is a community boxing gym. There are a lot of at-risk youth. But this is really open to the community, so everybody’s in there really getting at it — punching the bags, jumping ropes. We just ran 50 laps, so everybody’s pretty exhausted but still pushing forward.”
Tarrell Spencer, of Dunbar, took a break from some sparring to talk about what he has gotten from the encouragement of the tall guy friends and students call by his nickname, “the Big O.”
“I’m getting faster, stronger. It’s also taught me a lot of life lessons such as you should always do your schoolwork,” said Spencer, a 16-year-old sophomore at South Charleston High School.
“Big O is always talking to me about that, about how I’m above average. And I like that because it builds up your self-confidence. Also, it helps with my homework because a lot of the coaches tell me to bring my homework in and for the first hour or 30 minutes I do my homework and then I go work out.”
For the Big O himself, he is thankful for everything that has helped shape and change his life here in Charleston, even the experience of being down so low there was no way out but up.
“I wanted to use what I had learned and help impact West Virginia,” said Henderson. “DREAMS was really created, the platform was developed, from everything I experienced while homeless here in West Virginia.”
A group of Capital High students have since launched the first successful DREAMS student-run spin-off business, called ATR All Star Lawn Care, and was rewarded with $100 to make it an official West Virginia company by filing with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Henderson hopes to breed a crop of young Mountain State entrepreneurs.
“I believe one of the reasons why so many kids fall down a wrong path is because there’s not enough environmental supervision. The objective is to give them the empowerment that ‘I can do this.’ And just showing young people that with focus you can achieve anything.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at 304-348-3017 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.