"You're not going to get this diploma just by sitting here. Obviously, in order to get you to graduation, you gotta put in the work," Dr. Joe Marshall told students. "But, the first thing we gotta do is keep you alive and free."
"Free," he reiterated, putting his hand to his ear.
Dr. Marshall has some serious bragging rights these days. The program he co-founded in San Francisco to motivate inner-city kids to go to college is celebrating its 150th college graduate. He and co-founder Jack Jaqua wanted to save young people from the violence on the streets, so they formed the Omega Boys Club in 1987.
"I'm a former teacher, school administrator, and got tired of going to my kids' funerals," he said.
They host regular Tuesday night meetings for students at their building in San Francisco's Potrero District. They also go into schools like Thurgood Marshall Academic High to teach kids how to stay alive, out of jail, and in school, in spite of their circumstances.
Vice Principal Markus Blacksher says the Omega Boys Club helps save kids from the madness of the streets.
"It can be very rough in this area. Bayview is low social economic status. So, basically you have a lot of students, families who are struggling economically as well as socially," he told ABC7. "The violence in the Bayview can heat up at times."
"I'm on the police commission, so every time there is a murder in San Francisco, a homicide, I get a text," he told students holding up his phone. "So obviously, I never want to get a text about any of you."
Dr. Marshall says violence is a disease and the prescription will help a troubled young person heal, survive and thrive.
"There is nothing more valuable than an individual's life," he explained to students during a lesson on a range of topics.
"Peer pressure is a big problem. And, one of the rules we teach them is that a friend is someone who will never lead you to danger. And, if they can handle that, then the peer pressure they face, 'fearship' we call it, they face, is something they'll be able to deal with."
"Respect comes from within. No one can disrespect you if you respect yourself. It's part of a lifestyle we teach."
"If you want change, then change begins with you."
Kareem Irvin and Andre Aikens are two of the big success stories from the Omega Boys Club. They dressed for success on purpose for class, the way business men dress for work. They were with Dr. Marshall, sharing their stories with students.
"Broken family, broken home... I grew up as a foster child. I was adopted when I was 10-years-old. The Omega Boys Club helped me to see I could overcome those challenges, go onto succeed, and go to college," Irvin told the class.
"When I was 13, 14, it was all about hustling, getting as much as you can and solving problems with extreme prejudice if need be," said Aikens. "And, I was involved in everything from stealing cars, breaking in houses, but my main thing was selling dope."
Irvin explained that his lifestyle meant he was heading for his own funeral at an early age... until he was challenged by Dr. Marshall.
"Dr. Marshall said, 'If you knew what I knew you wouldn't do what you do.' So, he gave me a little, quick history lesson about where African Americans did make positive contributions to the society and I didn't even know that," Aikens recalled.
Aikens began to reprogram his thinking because of Omega Boys Club. He got his G.E.D., then a college degree in mathematics, then taught school, and became an assistant principal.
"Now, I work for the organization that gave me my future," he said.
The Omega Boys Club is teaching these kids that they do care about them, but the kids have to do the work to get through school, and they have to do the right thing and when that happens, they will help the kids get through college.
When asked how they find the money to do that, Dr. Marshall replied, "That's a good question. You know a lot of sayings we use at the club like 'You do good things and good things come to you.'"
When asked how influential Dr. Marshall and Mr. Jaqua were for Irvin, he replied, "You see a smile came on my face immediately. I would call them angels."
The Omega Boys Club is celebrating its 150 graduates at a big event on Thursday, October 22, 2009.
More Information: Omega Boys Club: Street Soldiers