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An open letter to Princeton Korper’s future ‘Big Brother:’ A Greater Cleveland

August 31, 2018

An open letter to Princeton Korper’s future ‘Big Brother:’ A Greater Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio

Dear future “Big Brother:”

I hear that Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland has found a potential “match” for my good friend, 14-year-old Princeton Korper. I hear that the two of you have met, and that he peppered you with questions about your work, measured your level of interest in both basketball and video games, and was deeply fascinated by your description of the fraternity that puts you within a degree of separation from so many influential black men.

So, you have seen his inquisitive, curious side. Maybe even his playful, goofy side. But there is so much to admire about this wonderful boy, who I have come to know over a year and a half of reporting on children in poverty as part of cleveland.com’s ongoing series, A Greater Cleveland. And I am hoping that you, too, will take the time to see Princeton for all that he is.

You see, nearly every man in Princeton’s life has disappointed him, beginning with his own father, who has been absent so long that he lost track of his teenage son’s birthdays back in elementary school. And quite simply, Princeton deserves a big brother, a guide through the pitfalls of becoming a man in a complicated world -- or at the very least, one relationship in which he doesn’t have to meet the needs of someone else.

So far, Princeton has been rushed along his path toward adulthood by necessity. He has been minding his younger brother and sisters since he was 6 years old. That’s when his single mom, Contessa, gave him his very first house key, and he was charged with the duty of signing his sister, Queen Ona, in and out of preschool each day, so Contessa could make it to her job on time.

Today, he is entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding his siblings safely home from school on public transportation, preparing meals and keeping them out of trouble until Contessa gets home from work. He understands the value of a dollar earned and what it means to be a family that comes from “the struggle,” as Contessa sometimes says. He is increasingly concerned with how much things cost and is quick to decline luxuries if he thinks they would burden his family’s already razor-thin budget.

Princeton tries hard to act tough. When he disdains something, he calls it “corny” and writes it off with a “tsk” of his tongue behind his braces and teeth. He is smaller than many of his peers and isn’t particularly athletic or strong, though he pretends to see himself otherwise. (One Christmas, he asked for athletic compression clothing, which Contessa found amusing because Princeton wasn’t playing a sport of any kind. She bought them anyway.)

But his sweet, sensitive nature is just below the surface. I’ve seen it when he drops everything at the bus stop to tie his little sister Princess’s shoes. I’ve seen it when my husband and I surprised the Korpers with a Frasier fir last Christmas, and Princeton posted photos of it on Instagram, boasting that he “finally got a Christmas tree.” And I’ve seen it at the dedication ceremony of the home Contessa bought for them through Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity – when tears spilled down his cheeks, and he couldn’t wipe them away because his arms were full, wrapped around his weeping younger siblings.

Princeton stays out of trouble, though he knows trouble is out there just waiting for him to let down his guard. A boy cannot grow up in Cleveland’s most dangerous public housing projects without awareness of that fact. On Instagram, Princeton celebrated his 14th birthday with this simple declaration: “It’s my birthday. I’m so happy I’m not in no gangs or in jail. It’s my big fourteen.”

Contessa called that post “a proud mom moment.”

“I guess I’m doing something right after all,” she texted me.

But she also worries that kids like Princeton easily fall through the cracks. She says resources are poured into helping boys who already are in trouble, while those like Princeton stand silently at a crossroads. And at that juncture, a boy can become clingy and vulnerable, Contessa agonizes. He can either risk rejection from a revolving door of father figures, or he can end up with whatever mentorship he finds on the streets.

Indeed, Princeton has a strong tendency to bond quickly with men who show him attention -- teachers, mentors, even my colleagues. When I first met him, he often casually referred to Richard Starr, the director of the King Kennedy Boys & Girls Club, as his “dad.” And this summer, when he played baseball -- his first real team sport -- he became so close with his coach and so enjoyed the brotherhood he felt with his teammates, that he was nearly inconsolable when the season ended.

And in the middle of all that is where you come in, Big Brother.

I know from reading your bio that you are in your mid-30s and are well-educated, with a stable job. You grew up in an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland with your parents and had three big brothers of your own.

Princeton told his mom that he wanted a mentor who is young, fun and loves sports. You seem to check those boxes. Your bio says you’re a Cavs fan, and that you hope to share that interest with a Little Brother. For many tweens, that common ground is just enough for a good start.

But what Princeton really wants to know about you is whether you will stick around. Will you show up? Will you follow through and keep promises?

Contessa, who has learned the hard way the painful lessons about letting down her defenses, has worked hard to make sure her four kids keep their feelings guarded and their expectations of people depressingly low. To both her dismay and amazement, they all have defied her – holding their hearts out, unconditionally and with faith.

And Princeton is taking a leap of faith on you, Big Brother.

He has been waiting his whole life for your call.

-- Leila Atassi, cleveland.com

A Greater Cleveland is a project of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Because of the sensitive family matters discussed in this series, we have provided the people we write about anonymity and are using pseudonyms to identify them. See the entirety of our project by clicking here.

A Greater Cleveland is a call to action to the community to help remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty. We ask that you consider giving an hour a week to lift someone from the multigenerational poverty that our series examines. This would involve participating in a program called Open Table.

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