Youngstown friends took different path

Shortly after publishing my March column on the six young men involved in shooting into a house full of people in February, killing one, I received an email from Lamar Sykes, formerly of Youngstown.

Sykes has a financial-analyst position with the defense finance and accounting service, a Department of Defense agency in Cleveland.

He read the column and suggested I write about him and five of his friends who grew up on the mean streets of Youngstown. He thought their lives would be a positive contrast to the men charged in the shooting.

They chose to pursue lives devoted to education, hard work and trying to make themselves better.

The six — Sykes, Michael Gibson, Wilson Okello, Clarence Howell, Carrington Moore and Thomas Toney — grew up on the South Side. Howell has stayed in town; the other five have moved away for job reasons or to seek additional education.

They are all 24, single and have no children.

They attribute their success in no small part to their parents’ guidance, their longtime friendship and their faith in God.

Youngstown was a great proving ground for them. They have fond memories of the city, but they also saw many of their friends succumb to the city’s negative image and make bad choices.

They remain close and, says Sykes, their long-range goal is “formulating ideas in which we can collaborate on how to help the area’s youth overcome some of the obstacles they may face. Our intentions are to establish a nonprofit organization in the area.”

I asked each of them about their education and what advice they would give to the next generation of black youths. Here is a part of their emailed responses.

Toney graduated in 2009 from the College of Wooster, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies with additional course work in urban studies. He also completed an internship in Accra, Ghana, in West Africa, where he received certification in teaching English there. He has applied for graduate programs in public policy and urban development.

He said his mother instilled in him “a passion and courage to be determined to do more than just survive” while growing up in Youngstown. His advice to the next generation: “Regardless of the hurdles in your life, go back to school, and [for] the rest of your life be determined to make your tomorrow better than your yesterday.”

Okello graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education (integrated social studies education) from Youngstown State University last year. He is a graduate fellow at the University of Rhode Island, where he is working on a master’s degree in higher education while serving as an intern coordinator of programming and diversity initiatives at Brown University.

His advice to the next generation: “... As we live for today, experience life with the principle that you started it with — ‘one foot at a time’ — for all its hope, fears, defeats, and triumphs, for this is how you begin to craft meaning and subsequently etch out your legacy.”

Carrington Moore graduated from YSU last year with a bachelor’s degree and a double major in political science and philosophy with a minor in history. He is pursuing a master’s of divinity degree at Boston University.

“Although my family struggled trying to integrate two families and work out finances, I experienced the best of what Youngstown had to offer,” he wrote.

His advice for the next generation: “Open your mind to new and creative experiences. ... Establish a good work ethic. Seek out mentors who are positive and care for you. ... Most importantly, surround yourself with great friends [who] encourage you to strive for excellence.”

Howell still lives on the South Side. He is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering from YSU, where he also received a bachelor’s degree in industrial and systems engineering.

“Youngstown has given me the privilege to grow up with five extraordinary men, and I am honored to call them my friends, no, to call them my brothers,” he wrote.

His advice to those coming after him: “Develop a personal relationship with God. He will give strength when you have none. Value your family, friends and your education. Live up to your potential, and don’t be scared to achieve greatness. Lastly, learn to value hard work.”

Gibson is enrolled at Columbus State University, where his goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in African-American history with a minor in philosophy.

He said, “The life lessons my parents taught me allowed me to keep my eyes centered on God, and my steps toward success.”

He encourages the next generation to gain as much knowledge of not just the world but also of themselves. “I live by the motto, ‘Through my success, others will be healed,’ because I believe if you continue to do good by God and work hard to not just reach the top, but exceed even your own expectations, others will be touched to follow and want the same.”

Sykes is a 2009 magna cum laude graduate of YSU, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration with a dual major in business economics and finance. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at Cleveland State University.

“One of the things I appreciate most about growing up in Youngstown is that I was able to experience the struggle. I watched my family and community as a whole overcome hardship after hardship,” he wrote.

His advice to young people is to live life with a purpose; use life’s roadblocks as stepping stones to something greater; and surround yourself with positive, like-minded people.

Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly column. He can be reached at

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