It started nine years ago when Kent Amos's son, newly enrolled at Coolidge High School, came home with a couple of new friends.
"The boys were OK," says Amos, who heads a Washington consulting firm, "but they just weren't the kind of kids I thought my son ought to be spending his time with. I mean they were rude and poorly spoken; they weren't interested in academics or anything else except sports and running around."
His first thought, he says, was to forbid Wesley to associate with these rough-cut youngsters lest they drag him down. Then he had a second thought: Why not lift them up to where they ought to be.
The upshot was the Amos "family," a group of high school students who meet nightly at Amos's Northwest Washington town house to study and talk. Since those early days, the "family" has embraced 57 young people, most of whom have cleaned up their language and attitudes, abandoned the path that was leading to wasted lives and prison, and, most important to Amos, embraced the values that produce decent behavior and success.
Values. The word crops up in virtually every serious conversation Amos has. Talk to this former Xerox executive about the problems young Washingtonians face and he'll tell you lack of constructive outlets for their energies, or the dearth of decently paid legitimate jobs, is only a minor part of the trouble. The main source, he says, is that the youngsters have not been taught the values that will help them withstand the temptation to trouble.
Talk to him about the trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and his comments are not about what the judge or the prosecutor or the jury did but what the failure of the decent blacks to hold public officials to a higher standard of decency has done to the values of our children. Talk to him about his adopted "family," and he talks about values.
"I try to help these youngsters enjoy themselves in positive ways, but I also insist that they devote serious time to study," he said in a recent interview. "I insist that they work when they're not in school, and that they do something positive for their communities. . . .
"We try to make our children believe that we are in control, but it's not true. The children themselves have the ultimate decision on almost everything they do, starting at a very young age. All I am doing is trying to get them to internalize a set of values. . . ."
It doesn't always work. A few kids yield to peer pressure and outside temptation and drop out of the Amos "family." Some get into trouble and have to start over again. And once or twice, parents have questioned Amos's intensive approach.
"One mother who didn't even live in the area called me disturbed about what I was doing with her child," he recalls. "That was during his second year in the program. I reassured her that I was only interested in letting the young man reach his potential. We later met -- at his graduation, with honors.
Most parents, though, are pleased to have their boys and girls join the Amos family, once they learn how seriously Amos takes his self-appointed mission. (Not only has he spent an estimated $250,000 of his own money on the program, but he has also enlisted his wife, Carmen, as hostess and cook for the study sessions.)
"I really do take the position that these are my kids," he told me. "I'm available to them around the clock. Just last week, one of the older boys tore up his knee playing basketball, and he had no insurance. I called my friend Tony Rankin (an orthopedic surgeon) and Tony took care of him for me. I have cried at their family funerals, and I have gotten kids out of jail. Once I was called away from Constitution Hall, where I was attending graduation exercises for some of my kids, to come get another one out of jail. That kid has now graduated from college."
It was no surprise to Amos that the values he had taught finally kicked in.
"The best thing that serious concerned adults can do for our children is to give them a clear, unequivocal set of values," he says. "Values are like ozone. They protect you from the things that can destroy you, while miraculously letting through the things that are necessary for life."