ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - In an effort to build bonds between police and area teens, local law enforcement took a group of high school students on a road trip south so they could learn about their history and see the possibilities in their future.
For the third year, Beyond Housing teamed up with the North County Police Cooperative and the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office on a program called "Humanity in the Middle," which aims to get area teens out of their comfort zone both physically and emotionally. Over four days, 15 students plus chaperones, including police officers and prosecutor Wesley Bell, traveled to Alabama.
Charlin Hughes, director of outreach and community involvement for the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank and a chaperone for the program since its inception, said each year there are hesitations among the students about traveling with law enforcement.
"As the trip progressed, you could see those young people navigating to law enforcement and understanding that, 'Man, that’s a cool dude,'" said Hughes.
The group traveled to significant historical locations in Birmingham, including the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb blast killed four African-American girls in 1963 during an act of white supremacist terrorism. The group then traveled to Montgomery to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which houses the lynching exhibit.
Students called the experience "eye-opening" and said they felt anger and sadness over the stories they heard. They felt motivated to take what they learned and share it with others.
"This is why we do this," said Capt. Clay Farmer. "This is what the whole purpose of 'Humanity in the Middle' was."
Each student on the trip wrote an essay to be considered. The trip costs about $700 per student to cover travel, lodging, meals, and activities. Through fundraising and community donations, the students do not pay a thing, they are just asked to pay it forward.
"They've pledged to make a change and to do more in their community and to give back," Farmer said.
The group also visited Alabama State University and Tuskegee University. The program aims to expose the students to the endless opportunities out there.
According to Bell, every student who has gone on the "Humanity in the Middle" trip has gone on to attend college. The students who attended the most recent trip seem to be on the same path.
"We know when they have educations, when they have exposure to different things outside of their communities, positive experiences, they are significantly less likely to commit crimes and go down that path, and more likely to get good jobs, be successful, take care of their families, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about," Bell said.
In past years, the program has taken students to Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The team said they will start planning for next year's trip in the upcoming weeks.