Helping Teens With Black Suits

May 29, 2018

When the white door to a three bedroom, one bathroom home on the south side of Greensboro opened recently, its frame filled with a tiny, older white woman before becoming engulfed by a 6-foot-4-inch black teenager.

Although the two don't look alike, Debbie Rochelle and Khalil Setzer are related.

Setzer's biological mother is Rochelle's cousin and it can get frustrating to talk about.

"People think I'm adopted all the time," Setzer said. "Then I have to explain this long story about how I'm not adopted. It's getting old. It's boring to tell it."

His biological mother gave birth to him when she was 19. She's also Rochelle's cousin. Rochelle said when Setzer was born, she knew he was going to be hers.

"With her being so young, she wasn't ready," Rochelle said. "I would go get him. I was there when he was born. When she was pregnant, I said, I want that baby, because I couldn't have any."

Documents were signed and Rochelle officially became Setzer's mom. As a child, Setzer was involved in a lot of activities like karate, theatre, and basketball. He kept his grades up on his schoolwork.

It wasn't until he entered middle school that he started to rebel.

"He got in trouble at school, he didn't want to do his work," Rochelle said. "He always had that smart mouth; talked back. It was like some days I really don't want to go home. I don't know what kind of mood he's going to be in."

It wasn't until he went to high school that his attitude began to change. Setzer is a freshman at the Academy at Smith High School. His guidance counselor recommended he join an organization called the Black Suit Initiative.

Boys with the Black Suit Initiative volunteer their time to help clean up debris left by tornadoes that swept through the city several days prior in Greensboro.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

The all-male non-profit organization aims to get black teenagers their first suit and tie over the course of a school year through community service and other events.

Founder Evainna Ross said she wants to show the boys that formal wear has a lot of benefits.

"Wearing a black suit or wearing a formal suit really helps with the abstract thinking and gives you that confidence," she said. "So I wanted to make sure that they were getting an education in the process."

Every Saturday, the boys spend five hours together. Some of their activities include touring college campuses, going to plays or volunteering.  

Boys with the Black Suit Initiative volunteer their time to help clean up debris left by tornadoes that swept through the city several days prior in Greensboro.
Credit Ben McKeown / For WUNC

Setzer's mom said her 14-year-old son has changed completely since joining last August. "I haven't gotten a single phone call or letter from school all year about behavior in class or disrupting class, messing up," she said. "None of that. His grades are good; backtalk is pretty much gone. Attitude is gone."

The program will accept applications until the end of June, which is also when Setzer will officially receive his suit and tie.

Setzer said even though high school might be tough, he's grateful for the lessons he's learning.

"I didn't care about anything to be honest," he said. "But it's teaching me how to care about other people and change the way I act towards people because then they can help me in the future."

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