Evainna Ross, 50, Super Mentor
She’s the lady you call in the middle of the night when you’ve had a fight with your mom. She’s the one who spent her pay check from her full-time job on her part-time, volunteer passion for serving youth.
She’s the keeper of the suits.
Evainna Ross is the lady behind the Black Suit Initiative, a leadership program challenging middle and high school boys in Greensboro to explore career opportunities, engage in new interests, and participate in positive team-building exercises. As they progress through the program, they earn a new suit.
To her 30-plus boys, she’s just Mrs. E.
Evainna started working with kids as a young professional. She had graduated from NC A&T with a degree in public relations, which she was using to work as an advertising sales representative. But her passion was her volunteer work with children at St. James Baptist Church.
She was drawn to teens — the drama of being a young adult. She quickly turned into that person kids reached out to in a crisis.
They’d call just to talk. Or they’d drop by her house – like one teen did in the middle of the night during a particularly dreadful fight with mom.
“My house has always been that kind of house,” she says.
In 2008, Evainna created the Sparrow’s Nest, a nonprofit serving youth with a variety of programs. She’d stock her Jeep with supplies, grab a few volunteers, and put together a craft class, a back-to-school drive, or dance class, focusing on government funded housing communities around the city.
“We would just go set up shop in a playground or basketball court,” she says. “I wanted to do something special for these communities. I wanted something positive for them to feel they were special.”
She eventually decided she wanted to do something that had more of an impact. She went out to the neighborhoods. She knocked on doors. She talked to gang members. She did her research.
Her idea: the Chosen 50. Fifty girls and boys who would be mentored and empowered to make positive life decisions. The program would follow them through high school graduation.
“I wanted to make sure they got all the same opportunities as everyone else. I wanted to make sure they were ready for college or ready for careers,” she says. Today, all the program graduates she is in touch with are in college or have jobs. They are contributing positively to the community. One went to Duke and then Harvard.
In 2016, Evainna launched her latest Sparrow’s effort: The Black Suit Initiative. It focuses intensively on young, mostly African American men.
“I wanted to save as many of them as I could from going to prison as I could,” she says.
The program is based on the concept that people act differently and are perceived differently when dressed in a suit.
“I wanted people to look at them differently,” she says.
This year she has 33 boys, from grades six to 12. New students are chosen for the program by program graduates – or ambassadors. Group members developed their own three-page code of conduct. Older students mentor younger students, Evainna says, often personally reaching out to them if they get in trouble at school or are acting out during their weekly, Saturday workshops.
She’s found herself tearing up watching them support and encourage each other.
“Some of these young men who have been in the program for a while have grown into these thoughtful leaders,” she says.
The group chooses their own community projects, such as this year’s effort to do outreach to elderly residents and terminally ill children. They spent a recent Saturday decorating cookies and making Christmas ornaments to share some cheer.
She also introduces them to new experiences, be it seeing a play at Triad Stage, meeting a high-powered businessman, or taking a trip outside of the state for the first time.
They earn that suit, piece by piece, by participating throughout the school year. Shirt, tie, socks, jacket. Evainna keeps them all in her office, properly dry cleaned and pressed, ready for their next trip out into the world.
Evainna challenges her middle and high school boys to see themselves differently.
“I work really hard to polish them, so people see them for who they are,” she says.
Want to support the Black Suit Initiative? Donate online at blacksuit.org. The program is also in need of volunteers, especially in math. The program will be accepting applications for new members in May 2019.