Sharon Daniels looks tired. She sits on the last step of her stairway, in the house where she grew up. Three teen-agers slouch in her leather couch; a fourth sits in the easy chair. Daniels' living room is quiet. The sun has faded behind the curtains, and rain sprinkles outside. The way Daniels describes it, people in Beltzhoover don't often leave their homes. They fear what can happen out on the sloping streets.
"Kids are afraid to go to school," Daniels says. "They're afraid of trouble. They could die out there."
Daniels knows this better than anyone. In 2001, her son Charlie was shot repeatedly while trying to protect his younger brother Terrell. The memory of his death is written on Daniels' face and flickers behind her eyes. She speaks in the affirmative tone of a veteran teacher and strong-willed mother, but the pain never eases. Since 2008, Daniels has devoted her life to curbing violence — not with bullets, but with shelter.
"Do I get a day off?" Daniels says. "No. Do I want a day off? No. I'm doing God's work."
Daniels is executive director of The Isaiah Project, formerly My Brother's Keeper, a mentoring program for at-risk youth. In only four years, Daniels says, 125 youths have "crossed my threshold." Participants come and go, but she is equipped to mentor up to 25 at a time. The teens in this room are all members of Isaiah: Klay Walker is a sweet-looking kid from Beltzhoover. Koren Walker is a sassy girl from Knoxville. Nervous Raekwon Johnson is from Allentown. Ultra-polite Javon Knight just arrived in Allentown, fresh from Florida.
In theory, kids from these rival hilltop neighborhoods should hate each other. They shouldn't share space. They shouldn't study together, or paint walls or do yard work together. But here they are, quietly sitting together, boasting of their college tours. Koren wants to open her own cosmetology studio. Klay raised his GPA from a 0.6 to a 2.5. He dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer.
"Before Isaiah, I was ‘Yo this, yo that,'" Klay says. "Now I'm, ‘Yes, ma'am, no, ma'am.'"
"I would've gone in a bad direction," adds Raekwon. "Drugs ..." He shrugs. They all know what a bad direction means. They don't go into details, because that other life is too ugly to articulate.
Working for Isaiah is a paying gig: Participants make $7.25 an hour for meaningful chores. Most of their schedule involves doing simple stuff — tutoring, gardening, taking field trips — that local schools can no longer provide. Some of Isaiah's excursions might seem unimpressive to middle-class kids, but no one in this room had ever eaten at a Japanese steakhouse, or ridden horses, or kayaked or camped in the woods. Daniels has helped open doors to a larger world.
Still, Daniels is tough. When asked how old she is, her expression sours, and she says, "You trying to hit on me or something?"
"In our community, we forgot to teach our kids to say please and thank you," she says. "I teach them that. I teach them to be responsible. There's not a child [at The Isaiah Project] I couldn't ask to do anything. I've given them checks to cash at the bank. I trust every one of them."
Perhaps the most astonishing fact of The Isaiah Project is that the teen-agers built their own headquarters. Isaiah procured a row house two doors down from Daniels' home, and the students refurbished the building themselves. Daniels doesn't feel like meeting at Isaiah tonight; there's not enough furniture, she says, and she's too tired to even put on shoes and take the one-minute walk. But after three years of gathering in church basements, Daniels is proud of their new home, and the kids who put it together.
Despite its biblical name, Isaiah is not a religious organization. Still, almost everyone involved is some kind of Christian, and Daniels begins every workday with a prayer. When asked what the prayer entails, she says, "Why don't we pray now?" Everyone bows a head. Each person clasps his or her hands together. Daniels voices a prayer for Isaiah, for her flock and for a visiting City Paper writer. She gives thanks. She says, "Amen." Short and sweet and perfect.
"That sounded good, didn't it?" she says with a monosyllabic laugh. Then she abruptly turns serious again. "I always tell them, ‘I don't care what you believe in, but you better believe in something other than yourself.'"