NEIGHBORS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Erick Kalenga

What brought you to Culpeper?

In 2001, early around January or February I was in Cape Town, South Africa. I got sent to do a missions program in Central Africa Republic. I was there for three months or so. Due to the nature of the work I was doing I was privileged to meet some key people. I met the vice ambassador of the U.S. at the time and I built some relationships with different guests coming in. Long story short, after three months I went back to South Africa and three weeks later there was an attempt of coup in the Central Africa Republic. So we couldn’t go back. While I was in Central Africa Republic, I got a Visa to come to the U.S. for five years. One of the couples I met in the republic, I was corresponding with them and they said “hey, do you want to come to the U.S.?” They paid for my and they were supposed to be the ones who picked me up from the airport. To my surprise, they weren’t able to pick me up so nobody was waiting for me when I showed up in June 2001. I had a couple of business cards from acquaintances I had made, so I called this particular person and he normally lives in Virginia Beach. At the time I called him, he was 30 minutes away from Dulles. He put me in a hotel for the first night and two weeks after that he said he had a condo in Alexandria he only used for business, so I could stay there as long as I want. Two weeks later he said he had a townhouse in Culpeper, so I came here and he gave me a business card and said “call this guy and he will take you to church.” That was Mike Sharman. So I called Mike, he was my first contact here and I wasn’t planning to come here and it seemed like God wanted me here.”

Now you have Project Rize, that you’re coordinating with the town police. What exactly is Project Rize?

Project Rize is a coaching program. Some folks may understand it better as a mentoring program. We’re looking at life as sports, so we want to coach kids through life. The reason I picked the word coaching is because mentoring has been overused and some people have a negative feel to it. As an athlete, I find that most people can relate to coaches on a positive side. This is literally a prevention. There’s a lot of organizations that are doing great work, at this point everything we’re doing is more reactive, not proactive. Project Rize is a free program and we are offering “mentoring” in adults who is being screened with a background check and we pair them with a compatible youth (males with males, females with females). They are able to offer that additional positive reinforcement in a child. The goal is to get into elementary schools, the elementary age groups because the behavior is starting to really show. Master Police Officer Mike Grant was first guy we got from the police department. By God’s divine grace and Mike’s consistency, this young man (he was paired with) had his life turned around. He’s now in the explorer program here at the police department. We’ve had a few more officers who have stepped up who want to be involved. We have nine folks involved now. My goal now is to really build and train a lot of mentors before we really advertise big. We have a big training coming up April 30. Really the goal is with the opioid and suicide epidemic, the warning signs start way earlier than that. Having a positive person around can help detect those and help the kid redirect it.
Is this geared toward those who might not have a positive role model in their lives? It’s primarily for those who do not have a positive role model in their lives. We know there’s a lot of male boys today who don’t have a male figure in their lives. We definitely are pushing for that and encouraging them to have the opportunity. Our mentors are committed to be with the kid for a minimum of a year. You can’t build a rapport with a kid within 30 days.

How do they build that trust? How do you forge that relationship? We’re encouraging the mentors, this is not something you push or force, it has to happen organically through certain activities. We find the things the client is interested in. We try to encourage all the mentors, you’re first month is not where you try to correct the behavior. You’re first 30 days is just being willing to open and listen. They want someone to listen to them, not to be talked to all the time. Activities will help with that trust building.

How does faith play a role in the project?

Our church (His Village) is sponsoring the program, and the reason why we’re doing it this way is because we want to infuse the faith component as strongly as we can, as the opportunity permits. We know we can’t shove faith into someone’s head. It’s something that has to exemplified and demonstrated. The reason we are doing it outside the government system, is so we can do that.

How difficult is it to connect with kids on that level?

At this point what I’ve discovered is if you say “church,” people are shut down to it. But God, they have a tendency to be open to it. Most people are just tired of church, but when you talk about God there’s an opportunity for a conversation there. When we talk to kids, they’re not opposed to God, it’s more the organized religion they have an issue with. If it starts with good and evil, you can get a conversation started.

How are you finding the kids for Project Rize Up?

At this point we had a couple come organically, and we’ve had a couple word of mouth happen. We’ve had a couple school counselors who have mentioned to the parents. I’ve received a call from RRCS about what the process is to get kids into the program. The word is out but I want to make sure we have enough men and women willing to step in.”

About Jeff Say 292 Articles
Jeff Say is the editor for the Culpeper Times. He can be reached at jsay@culpepertimes.com