Freedom Writers share experiences with children at talk hosted by SMART Mentoring program

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Tony Becerra, one of two original “The Freedom Writers Diary” students, speaks in the Stone Center as part of a lecture hosted by SMART.

Henry Jones used to go by a much different name — Cyanide.

“Cyanide is a poison,” Jones said. “That’s what my family was.”

Jones, one of the original student writers made famous by the book and movie “Freedom Writers,” spoke Tuesday at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center.

As a 10-year-old boy, Jones said he wasn’t the only child in his rough hometown to see drive-by shootings, witness the shooting of family members or question the value of life altogether.

“I lived in a world where the value of your life can be five bucks, it can be just a simple misunderstanding or it can be just because someone doesn’t like your ass,” he said.

But Jones and Tony Becerra, another one of the original Freedom Writers, said they turned their lives around after their high school teacher, Erin Gruwell, showed an interest in their lives. Gruwell encouraged them to keep diaries and work hard in school.

The writers said they came to UNC to let impoverished elementary and middle school children who are part of the Stimulating Mental Awareness Related to Teens Mentoring program know they are also important. Their audience included children from grades four to eight, along with some of their parents and teachers.

The event was co-hosted by two UNC students in the SMART mentoring program, juniors Lisa Pelehach, executive program coordinator, and Erin Sanderson, chief operations coordinator.

“I hope for this to be an event where the youth can hear stories of positive role models and use it for inspiration in their own lives,” Pelehach said before the speech.

Jones said he knew what it was like to come from an underprivileged background, because he grew up among “pimps and gang members.”

“I did what I knew,” Jones said. “I did what I was taught.”

He saw violence on a daily basis from a young age, and he lost all of his possessions when gang members burned his house down.

“When you get to the age of 12 and you’re just completely immune, human life means absolutely nothing,” Jones said.

He said he didn’t read as a child because books couldn’t keep him safe. In the real world, all he needed to know was which gangs lived where. All that separated him from his brother, who has been in prison since Jones was 15, was that Jones had an opportunity.,

“All it takes is someone to see something in you that is worth salvaging,” he said.

Becerra, who was the first in his family to graduate high school, said he is proud of his publications and fame. But he is more proud to be a role model for his nephew, who will graduate high school this year.

One of the students in the mentoring program, Nyeisha Jackson, said she learned a valuable lesson from the event.

“Usually I just fight the person back, but now I will tell the teachers.”

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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