"Listen up. First-time models, one side. Old hats over here. We're going to start with basic steps."
Marilyn Davy now has their attention, and she has it on a Saturday afternoon, when teenagers everywhere else are working, mall-hopping, playing video games, shooting hoops, surfing the Net, chillin'. Not this group. They're at the Rollingcrest-Chillum Community Center in Chillum, rehearsing for a pre-Christmas fashion show that will raise money for kids with chronic diseases and disabilities.
"Three steps forward and turn, turn, turn," Davy instructs. "Lips--poke 'em out, point 'em out, but don't bite 'em. Never take your eye off your audience."
Davy is founder and executive director of the Earthen Vessels Foundation, a Prince George's County-based nonprofit whose aim is to help kids overcome obstacles, build self-esteem and give something back. She started the organization seven years ago, after a neighbor's daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome, and she felt compelled to do something.
The foundation takes its name from 2 Corinthians 4:7 (But we have this treas-ure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us), and its literature further illuminates: "Earthen vessels, simple structures molded from the potter's clay, fragile and breakable, yet able to maintain their shape even under intense heat."
Some of the teens in Davy's program are indeed fragile, but they've managed to persevere and thrive. We are talking about kids who've lived in homeless shelters and on the street, kids who've been abused and molested. Davy has brought them together--along with kids from million-dollar homes and private schools and suburban enclaves--to do something rewarding.
"I think they all kind of learn something from each other," she says.
Cohen Cosby, a 17-year-old senior and outside linebacker at Coolidge High in Northwest D.C., says that strutting in donated designer suits for a good cause has broadened him. "I've learned to deal with different kinds of people," he says. "I've also learned a little more patience."
What's inspiring is how these earthen vessels, many of them with so little, can be so selfless. Some are already weighed down by their own problems. One of the teens came to rehearsal once with a vicious black eye, and the other kids promptly started razzing him. What happened? Some girl clock you? "No," the boy said, "me and my dad got into it." And the room fell silent. The boy's peers understood.
Ironically, Davy finds, it's those who have their own challenges who seem most determined to help others. Tiffany Payne, 16, a wispy Coolidge junior with an infectious smile, once lived in a homeless shelter. "I kind of feel a debt," she says. "People have done so much for me."
Gratitude, wherever it's found, should be applauded. We've become so accustomed to entitlement and greedy excess that even the most outrageous extravagances barely penetrate our consciousness anymore. Mike Tyson, according to recently unsealed court documents, threw a $410,000 birthday party and spent $230,000 on pagers and cell phones in just a couple of years. L. Dennis Koz-lowski, the former chief executive for Tyco International Ltd., is accused by the company's directors of using company funds to buy a $17,000 "traveling toilette box" and a $15,000 "dog umbrella stand." And these were just his minor expenditures.
Today's teenagers don't have to read the newspaper to become intoxicated by luxurious lifestyles. They're bombarded with images of Cristal champagne and Bentleys, gated mansions and expensive wardrobes, just watching MTV and listening to CDs. So when teenagers are willing to give up 15 prime-time Saturday afternoons to practice fashion pivots in a rec center, all in the name of helping seriously ill kids, it's worth noting.
On this Saturday, the sun is bright, the air is warm, and 16 teens are inside, in a room without a view, listening, laughing, vamping. They are fashion models in progress--some stiff, some unsure, others becoming comfortable. For a couple of hours, they stride and spin in their jeans and jerseys, critiquing one another's moves, breaking for cookies and punch.
Tiffany Payne says she was uncertain about herself before she started coming to Earthen Vessels four years ago. But the discipline of rehearsals, the stage, the lights, the audience on the big night "have built up my self-esteem and my confidence," she says. And now, "when the music's on, it's like--hey!" She snaps her fingers and bounces on her feet.
Fashions come and go, but these kids keep coming back.
Kevin Merida's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.