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‘Heart of a Champion’: Success begins with a home (part 2) -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

‘Heart of a Champion’: Success begins with a home (part 2)

Travis Pinckney (far right) says his life changed for the better once he began making music. Now he's helping other young people discover
what music can do for them. Here, he works with (from left to right) Quinterius Cameron, Dr. Chris Janson, Chloe Mobley, Reggie Myers,
Kelvin Jennings and Jeffrey Dillard.


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“Heart of a Champion”

By Travis Pinckney


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The lure of drug money

About the time Habitat for Humanity Jacksonville launched the prep program in 2002, Travis was in middle school, beginning to think about his own future.

His family moved out of a small rental unit and into a Habitat house. But as he neared high school age, he was on a dead-end path, with a prison cell or a graveyard the most likely destination.

“Growing up in poverty, you see some things that are enticing, such as people selling drugs,” he said. “Society portrays it as rite of passage, becoming a man for young black males. I was tempted by that and was hanging out with the wrong people. I was mentored about how to traffic cocaine. I was about to start do what he was doing.”

Travis had joined the Hicks Prep Club at age 15, but still the promise of easy money as a drug dealer was tempting.

“I knew getting in trouble would limit me in my influence in the world,” he said. “But it was the money. I was working at Winn-Dixie, making $5.25 an hour and my mom was making maybe $22,000 a year.”

The drug-dealing lifestyle might have won out had it not been for a close call with the police.

“One day, when I was 17, we were pulled over by the police,” he said. “I didn’t have anything on me. But the police found $5,000 in my friend’s pocket, a suspended license and drug paraphernalia.

“The police officer told me to get clear of this guy or I’d end up in jail. He was right, and I stayed clear of him. I had just gotten a big break.”

Music as an escape

More and more, Travis began to find refuge in the small Murray Hill Christ Community Church, pastored by his uncle, Roderick Pinckney.

There, he learned to play piano and wrote songs about his struggles. He often went to the church after dark, and sometimes slept there.

His uncle, who gradually took the drug dealer’s place as Travis’ mentor, began to realize the boy’s talent and built a $6,000 recording studio in the church.

“Music kept me out of trouble and kept me sane,” Travis said. “I started creating albums on what it took to achieve collegiate success in urban neighborhoods. I started bringing others in to do this. We were creating hip-hop music, but it was positive. And I was already getting to do some mentoring of my own.”


Young men like Quinterius Cameron (left) say Travis Pinckney has helped them turn their lives around.


Jeffrey Dillard, a freshman at Georgia Tech and one of Travis’ first mentees, said he isn’t sure where he would be now if not for Travis.

“I first met Travis when I was 9 or 10, when I had come to his church with my cousin and aunt,” Dillard said. “I never had a big brother to help me, and he became that.

“He’s always been in my corner no matter what,” Dillard said. “My junior year, things got hectic in my life. I was going through a lot of verbal abuse at home, and felt like I was not good enough for anybody or to do anything. Travis helped me turn things around and instilled in me a desire to be better than that.”

Travis could relate to this kid. They had come from similar backgrounds and had both been around a lot of drug abuse. And they both needed a way out.

“Music helped me cope with my situation,” Travis said, “but I knew college was the way out of my situation.”

Fulfilling his potential

Once Travis got into college, his potential became clear.

Dr. Christopher Janson, a professor of counseling and educational technology at the University of North Florida, remembers meeting Travis as a sophomore.

“I had been charged to hire a couple of undergrads as mentors for area youths,” Janson said. “I had a picture in my mind of who it would be. Then I saw Travis at a job fair, working the room, and people were drawn to him.

“I sought him out and approached him about the job,” Janson said. “He gave me a CD that he’d recorded, and I had always thought that a good way to approach youth in urban settings was through the culture of hip-hop.”

Janson quickly realized that Travis had some special qualities and was going to be far more than just a temporary hire.

“He was ready to create programming instead of stepping into existing programs,” he said. “Our first big work together was “Grind to Shine,” in which we built a recording studio in Paxon Middle School, in a low-income urban community. We modeled our program after what he had done at his church in high school.”

Kids flocked to the studio to create their own hip-hop music in a high-quality recording studio. But Travis knew the program couldn’t be just about music. He incorporated some of the elements of the Betkey’s prep club, with hip-hop serving as the carrot, and career and academic mentoring as the stick.

“Also, the music itself was always framed around those career and educational aspirations, with a positive message,” Janson said.

During Travis’ undergraduate and graduate years at the university, he taught, counseled or mentored more than 250 students in 11 elementary, middle and high schools. He also shared innovative strategies and teaching techniques with educators and other graduate students.

Next: A positive pied piper
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