The day after a 15-year-old Ashburn boy was fatally shot by a friend in March, 50 teenagers showed up at Fred Mitchell's church to pray and grieve together. The next day, 200 came.
"That's when it really hit me," Mitchell said. "I really needed to find a way to help more kids."
The shock that gripped the community in the aftermath of the death of Donald Nicholas Shomaker, who had been doing drugs with friends when the shooting happened, also haunted Mitchell, 35, a youth pastor at Capital Community Church in Ashburn. And it set him on what he calls a "mission" to empower teenagers to make the right choices.
That is what he had been doing as a youth pastor for a decade, Mitchell said. But he knew he would have to drop the religion to reach teenagers where they're easiest to find: in schools. So last year, he launched a weekend tutoring program that has grown into a group that mentors teenagers on leadership and life skills -- and that, if Mitchell has his way, will snowball into something akin to a movement.
"They were looking for something," Mitchell said of the teenagers who came to his church and those who participated in the memorial march he organized shortly after Shomaker's death. "I just wanted to be there to provide it for them."
In addition to the tutoring sessions, the group, called Next Level 4 Teens, hosts after-school programs at Stone Bridge High School and presentations at area schools. It also is launching a Web site where teenagers can post messages and get advice.
At a recent presentation at Belmont Ridge Middle School, Mitchell left faith out but still sounded like a preacher, delivering his message of the day in impassioned crescendos, often asking students to repeat his words and sometimes bowing his head.
A tall and wiry man, Mitchell stood before about 300 raucous eighth-graders, each clad in a black T-shirt printed with the letters "NXL," and exhorted them to take a stance against bullies. School officials had asked that he address that topic, Mitchell said.
"We want this school . . . " he yelled. "Repeat after me!"
We want this school . . .
"We want this school to be bully-free!"
We want this school to be bully-free!
Mitchell said he hopes the group -- run by himself, volunteers and selected high school students -- will soon be in every Loudoun secondary school, to keep as many students from falling through the cracks as possible.
"We'll see you today, we'll see you next month, then when you graduate and go to Stone Bridge High School, we'll see you there," he said he tells middle school students.