CHICAGO – To these young men, President Barack Obama is a model of what they could become -- if they can avoid violence, unemployment and other pitfalls that have derailed some residents in their communities.
High school students enrolled in the Chicago schools' "Becoming a Man" program sat down with the president Friday in their school before he delivered a speech about the blight of gun violence on communities and the economy.
Student Vontate Stewart said Obama described his own struggles of the past and how he overcame them.
"He told us how he grew up and the situations he had been in and how he handled them," Stewart told CNN after their meeting. "And he just gave us ideas how to handle situations and let us learn from the situations he had been in. "
Their conversation "was helpful and very motivating," Stewart said.
His peer, Ronald McCormick, joined this program after a conversation with a teacher when he landed in detention. He was not a chronic troublemaker, but has seen his grades improve and said the conversation with Obama resonated with him.
"I got good advice about how he talked about how he dealt with his anger issues, his problems. So we had a good experience with him today,' McCormick said.
That teacher, Marshaun Bacon, said Obama gave the young men in his program an "example of the power of hard work, self-determination."
"So now I'm going to challenge the group to say, now that the president has spoken to you, now that you have seen the best in what you can do, how are you actually going to go out and do those things?" Bacon said. "Each man will have that challenge and will work at it individually, but also as a group. 'What is our next move?' 'How do we continue to exemplify the best of what we can do?'"
Obama was born in Hawaii but raised his own two daughters within a mile of the Hyde Park Career Academy where he spoke.
"That's really what I've come here to talk about today – raising our kids," Obama said. "I'm here to make sure that we talk about and then work towards giving every child every chance in life; building stronger communities and new ladders of opportunity that they can climb into the middle class and beyond; and, most importantly, keeping them safe from harm.'
The president spoke about the "hole in that child's heart" that comes from gun violence. In neighborhoods across the country, "it can feel like for a lot of young people the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town – that no matter how much you work or how hard you try, your destiny was determined the moment you were born."
Chicago saw more than 400 gun deaths last year and just last month, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down near her school a week after she participated in the festivities around Obama's inauguration. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, attended the teen's funeral and two men have been charged with her murder.
Obama introduced the "Becoming a Man" program students in his speech and called them "exceptional young men" – especially so, he said, because of their own struggles.
"What I explained to them was I had issues, too, when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving," he said. "So when I screwed up, the consequences weren't as high as when kids on the South Side screw up.
"But these guys are no different than me and we had that conversation about what does it take to change," Obama continued, later adding that "for a lot of young boys and young men, in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up and respected.'
Student Allen Ester said Obama told the group, "if we gonna change it's gotta start within ourselves."
"I had lost a couple friends due to gun violence and you know to the streets, or whatever, so I really think it's time for a change – not just me but with a lot of people ... in Chicago," he told CNN. "It really ain't safe out here right now."
Bacon, the teacher, said he hoped the students who met with Obama would carry the conversation with them.
"He talked about the fact that he had to make a commitment to stay the path that he was on. He talked about times where he was discouraged and he thought about giving up but it stuck to it, and he's done pretty well for himself," Bacon said.
"So I'm hoping our guys can emulate that same example, and who knows what is in store for them. "Maybe we're looking at one of the next presidents."