James Callaham Tells Middle School Students: Find Your Purpose
It was a struggle to get an education and to stay away from the lure of the street life. A struggle to overcome the problems of inner city urban life in a community where crack had become king and life had become cheap.
Recently, Callaham had the opportunity to bring those life experiences to Camelot Education’s Excel Academy Middle Years in Philadelphia as a motivational guest speaker. He spoke openly with young men and women who are facing the same problems and struggles he faced and was able to overcome.
“I bring myself to their level,” Callaham said. “You see, not much has changed in the inner cities. I was born in the eighties. Now opiates have become the new crack but the problems are still the same. You have parents chasing the high and ignoring their kids. I was faced with being eight years old and having to cook a meal for my younger siblings. I was in a house where I saw people getting high. I was where relatives were selling drugs and I saw the violence that came from all of that. So I know what these kids have seen and what they go home to. I know what goes on with these kids. But I let them know you don’t have to let that define you; you can make it out. You can become part of something better and bigger than that.”
Excel Middle Years Academy, in partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, provides academic programs and services to middle grade students who find themselves in need of a smaller school setting. The Academy utilizes staff and resources in flexible ways that respond to student needs and prepare them for the high school selection process. Excel Middle Years Academy equips students with the skills required for middle and high school success, and provides support to students throughout the year.
Callaham, 34, graduated from Norfolk State University with an accounting degree. But he said that what helped him overcome the struggles of the environment he was born into was finding his purpose in life; essentially understand what your God-given gifts are, or in more secular terms, what motivates you.
“That’s what changed my life. I was able to go to college because I refused to give in or give up,” he said. “I found a job in corporate America. I was making money but I was still unfulfilled. The job wasn’t doing it for me. I ended up getting fired and I never looked back. But I learned I could communicate; that I could bring people together. You can’t help everyone but you can ask yourself ‘who can I help?’ I came out of a lot of ugliness but I learned you can chase money and still not be fulfilled. You have to discover what motivates you.”
During his time with the Excel Academy students, he discussed not just his background and what he endured growing up in Philadelphia, but about his vision for his business, his business plan, how he went about executing his plan, the expansion of his brand to a clothing line, and his relocation to Los Angeles to ensure that his business succeeded.
The students were extremely moved by his story. After the large group session, select students participated in a smaller group session where they were able to ask more questions that were more specific to the student’s and the speaker’s situation.
“Working with middle schoolers has opened our eyes that it’s never too early to make that impression,” said Executive Director Sadiqa Lucas. “It used to be this is the kind of thing we addressed with kids in high school. But we said you know what – this would be perfect. We have motivational speakers frequently. This particular one just hit home, and it was emotional and moving to see someone who never met any of our students be able to get across to them. It was emotional. I had young men breaking down and crying at the table saying I can relate to that. Or my uncle is locked up and my dad is locked up or my dad is dead and the only meals I have are in this building.”
Callaham said that in the 21st century, technology has opened the doors for unlimited opportunities for the entrepreneurial spirit. Young people need to see beyond the streets and that there are unlimited options. It’s important that a kid who’s 12, 13, 14-years old feeds the mind.
“Technology has made it cool to be a nerd,” Callaham said. “There are so many other options besides grouping together with your homies and selling drugs. I have a younger brother who is about to get out of prison; having served eight years for conspiracy in a drug case. I went to college, and he went to prison. It’s about the choice you make that can determine your future. That’s what I do when I’m invited to speak to young people. It’s in the early years that we can plant the seed. What is it that you want? Just a job that pays the most money? Or do you want to hone your God-given talents and gifts and then teach it to others? It’s when they’re young that they’re going to turn to the streets. If we start with them while they’re young that’s when they see they have a chance; that they can solve the riddle without losing their cool. Your gift doesn’t expire.”