Alonzo Patterson, a thick, zealous 16-year-old, always knew he wanted to get out of his far Northeast neighborhood. It was his dream, "but only a dream, as dreams go."
As he stood at National Airport awaiting his boarding pass for a trip that seemed like a fantasy prize from a TV game show,Patterson talked fast, explaining his philosophy on life in just enough detail to give the picture but not so much that he might miss his plane. In exactly 47 minutes, the plane would take him and 26 of his neighborhood comrades to -- as far as they were concerned -- another world.
Patterson, president of Youth on the Rise, an organization of 27 students from a drug-ridden neighborhood in far Northeast Washington, was about to fly away with the group from the reality of the District on an all-expenses paid five-day cultural trip to the Virgin Islands.
"This is a leap for us," said Patterson, with a woolen scarf wrapped around his neck and tucked in his sweater. "We've come a long way, and now we're going to the Virgin Islands. I can't believe it."
Youth on the Rise was conceived as an avenue of escape from an area that encompasses the Paradise Manor and Mayfair Mansion apartment buildings, where the city's one-year-old crackdown on street-level drug trafficking has led to several arrests in the area notorious for around-the-clock, open-air drug markets.
Jonathan Pinkney, a slight, wide-eyed 14-year-old, who is the group's secretary, said, "The neighborhood I live in is always going to attract news because we have drug addicts. A neighborhood has a lot of influence on what you become in life, if you are not trained properly in home as I was. My mother taught me what to do and what not to do. In our neighborhood, you're different by what you do. It's how you carry yourself."
"We want to be different. We want people to look up to us rather than people running around with gold chains," Patterson said.
"We have to chase drug users out of our hallways," said Fatima Fuller, 12, a seventh grader at Woodson Junior High and the group's treasurer. She said that on the trip she intended to "see how other people live, so I can come back and tell people what I saw -- people who won't have the opportunity to go."
Youth on the Rise is an offshoot of a community development effort by Consumers United Insurance Co., a D.C. minority-owned company concerned with improving social justice, explained company President Jim Gibbons. Thus the company is picking up the tab for the trip at an estimated cost of $20,000.
"We're taking them to the absolute best hotel on the island," Gibbons said. "It's a snapshot of what can happen if they live up to the capacity they have."
The goal of Youth on the Rise is to cultivate those talents and expose the youngsters to the world outside their neighborhood, said Sandra E. Carroll-Williams, the group's sponsor and a teacher for 15 years at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Northeast, where she has nurtured many of the neighborhood's young. Within the group are poets, artists, writers and honor students.
"In my community, it's not the thing to write poetry. They say, 'Poetry? what?' " said Patterson, a determined poet and student of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts whose works are published in the group's community newsletter.
At the end of the spring semester, members of the community development group contacted Williams and asked her help in organizing a project of the junior high students in the neighborhood before the summer's boredom set in.
"They wanted something with substance," Williams said. "They're very bored with a lot of stuff. After three months in the summer, they get bored. . . jumping rope. They wanted something that would take them out of their community. They know that they're missing something. I feel it's our duty to get them exposed."
So Williams set out with an ambitious agenda to show them nothing less than the world. During the summer, the group went to plays at the Kennedy Center and and dined at expensive Washington restaurants. "Most of them had never been to the Kennedy Center . . . . Things we take for granted . . . they have not been exposed to."
Williams introduced seminars on self-awareness, self-esteem, motivation, leadership. The group took trips to businesses as a part of Williams' effort to get the students focused on their talents and career goals. "The idea is that all these kids have a lot of potential nobody has bothered to try to tap."
The trip to the Virgin Islands, where the students will meet with the governor and greet some of the island's students, is a culmination of their efforts.
"The students had to earn 100 points to take the trip. They got so many points for working on the newsletter, attending seminars, so many points for grades, community service and articles," Williams said. ". . . I tried to show them you don't get something for nothing. You have to work for it."
The students stood at National, eagerly reciting goals and carefully calculated destinies, proud of their accomplishments.
"In June, when I got here, I had goals but they were like dreams," Patterson said. "Everyone has dreams. I really can't explain it but now I know what I want: I want to be a lawyer, I want to go to Morehouse and go on to Harvard."
George Brown, 15, the group's vice president, said the organization helped him set his sights on becoming a lawyer. In the meantime, he hopes to make a video "to show the problems in my neighborhood -- the way it used to be, the way it is now and what it will be."
Williams said, "Those of us who have so-called 'made it' have a responsibility to go back to help them. That's my philosophy and I'll do it until I drop." From left, Halima Sabour, Saida Abdul-Aliyy, Atif Tate, Andre Curtis, Abdullah Fuller and Malik Fuller await departure for Virgin Islands at National Airport.