Smyre reaches beyond Livingstone College to INVEST in boys

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 1, 2014

As director of policy and compliance at Livingstone College, Russell Smyre Sr. has a big impact on the institution’s daily operations.
But the impact can’t compare to the difference he’s making in the lives of young boys living in the Salisbury-Rowan County community.
You see Smyre, who in two weeks will graduate from The University of Liberty with a master’s degree in executive leadership and human services, is pastor of The Father’s House of Glory in Salisbury. When he’s not working at the college or preaching at the church, he mentors young boys by stressing the importance of education and exposing them to positive role models and cultural activities.
The way Smyre sees it, someone has to ensure the boys — mostly of color and many from single-parent homes — get off to the right foot, and so it might as well be him. On April 26, Smyre took six young men to visit the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. During a campus tour led by three African-American male students, the boys went to a residence hall, a school library, stopped by the Neo-Black Society and ate on campus in the cafeteria. Afterward, they watched the UNCG Spartans compete against the Elon University Phoenix on the diamond.
The three UNCG students have an organization called GYM, or Growing Young Men, and are just the type of people Smyre wants interacting with the young boys in INVEST, or Innovative New Ventures Empowering Students through Teamwork.
“My first time being on a college campus was after I graduated from high school,” said Smyre, whose bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in Christian counseling, also came from Liberty. “I had the potential to play basketball in college, but I had never been exposed to college so I didn’t pursue that. As a result, I didn’t attend college right after graduating from high school, but after years of working I finally decided to go to school to earn a degree. Over time I’ve come to realize that children, no matter their race or socio-economic background, do better when they are exposed to the right environments because your environment will change you quicker than you can change it.”
Smyre’s INVEST program, which he officially launched in February and is underwritten by The Father’s House of Glory, doesn’t cost a lot of money or require students to jump through hoops for membership. For example, he used one of his church’s vans to transport the boys to Greensboro on the 26th, and the boys simply need to attend meetings and come with the backing of their parents.
“The visit to UNC-Greensboro was our inaugural college visit, but I plan to take them to a different campus once a month,” Smyre said. “The boys I’m mentoring are of color, but I plan to expose them to a variety of higher education institutions, including HBCUs, private schools, large public schools like The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and even prep and boarding schools. In May I’m hoping to take them to North Carolina A&T State University.”
A highlight of the April 26 trip for Smyre occurred as the van was about to leave UNC-Greensboro to return to Salisbury and Ayden Williams, who happens to be the son of his daughter, Tea Williams, a junior at Liberty College, said, “PaPa, this was the best day of my life! I want to go to college.”
Then, in the way only an impressionable 5-year-old child could, Ayden asked Smyre, “Can I go to college tomorrow?”
Needless to say, college is a ways off for Ayden and many of the other boys ages 7-14 who are members of INVEST. But if Smyre has his way, by the time the boys are sophomores and juniors in high school, the question won’t be whether they’re going to attend college but instead where.
Of course, exposing the boys to colleges and universities is great, but Smyre also wants them to have a good sense of the way things work in everyday life. So in March he took them to Duke Energy’s Salisbury office where they sat through an introductory workshop on engineering that included videos, demonstrations, illustrations and a Q&A session.
“I want to maximize the potential of these young men,” Smyre said. “So when I sit around and try to develop activities for them or think of places or people to visit, I’m constantly pondering what will be the value added to their lives, or what will they get from it.”
Think what Smyre’s doing with the young boys in the Salisbury-Rowan County community sounds like a benevolent social experiment at best? Think again.
He did the same thing with his three sons, who are all now grown and doing quite well. Chris, 25, is a second-year medical student at The University of Chicago. Russell, Jr., 23, is getting a master’s degree in engineering at N.C. A&T. His youngest son, Scott, 20, is a sophomore at Wake Forest University, where he’s majoring in bio-physics in hopes of becoming a bio-medical engineer.
“I think what Pastor Smyre’s doing is fantastic because there are a lot of young men around here that really don’t have positive role models in their lives,” said Nico French of East Spencer, whose 9-year-old son Xavier participates with Invest. “Growing up back in the day young kids had ‘The Cosby Show’ and other TV shows to help motivate them to want to attend college, but nowadays they’re not really getting much inspiration with all of the reality shows and other programs that are on. For many of the kids in INVEST, they wouldn’t get the chance to visit a college in another city or to learn how to build checker boards or to meet with professional men and women if it wasn’t for the work Pastor Smyre is doing. I’m very grateful for him and am glad my son is part of the organization.”
Christian Hunter, 10, a student at Hurley Elementary School in Salisbury, is a member of INVEST.
“I really like the program because it might help me achieve my dreams,” said Christian, who wants to be an artist because he enjoys drawing different pictures. “I think of Pastor Smyre as a role model because I don’t have an older brother and my dad isn’t with us. He helps me understand stuff and goes over words with me so I will learn.”
Christian said he enjoyed the trip to UNC-Greensboro, his first visit to a college campus.
“I think more people should get to do that because they can learn what college is like,” he said. “I appreciate my mom for putting me in the INVEST program.”
Celestine Lassiter, a day-care cook, said INVEST is helping her son.
“He enjoys it, and he was so excited when they came home on Saturday,” Lassiter said. “He said, ‘mom, that’s the school I want to go to.’ I appreciate what Mr. Smyre is doing for the boys.”
Smyre said he’s mentoring the young men because it’s the right thing to do.
“I know what I’m doing can positively impact these young men’s lives, and I’m determined to keep doing it for as long as I can,” he said. “Through God’s grace and my church I’m helping young boys realize they have bright futures and that they don’t have to get caught up in many of the social ills plaguing boys of color including gangs, drugs, crime and early fatherhood. Luke 12:48 says to whom much is given much is required, and I’m just trying to use the blessings I’ve been given and the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to help others.”