Dontrell, a middle school student in Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Summer Dreamers program, said Mr. Parker teaches him to “never give up, and if you set your mind to something, you can always do it.”
Perhaps no one knows that sentiment better than Mr. Parker himself.
Kevin Parker, 51, leads the Restorative Practices section of the Summer Dreamers program at University Prep (Pittsburgh Milliones). The camp, for the first time at U-Prep, housed just middle school students (grades 6-8). As classes are being held that feature ELA (English, Language, Arts) and enrichment activities in the afternoon such as flag football and theatre/dance, the Restorative Practices classroom is where students go to resolve certain issues.
“And then they come to an agreement so that everybody can stay in camp, and everybody can continue to build this community,” said Dorreen Allen, the camp’s director.
Throughout the hallways, students can be seen giving fist bumps to Mr. Parker, shouting his name, even sharing a dance move or two.
On July 27, Mr. Parker even performed a rap and dance routine with the students on the U-Prep auditorium stage, then posed for pictures afterwards.
“He came in as a coordinator, but we really found his niche quickly on how he deals with kids, and how kids relate to him,” Allen said.
“What I give them is hope,” Parker told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I tell them they’re born with a gift, and that’s the light inside of them.”
The youth seem to listen to “Mr. Parker,” as they call him, because they know he’s sincere, genuine, and has overcome trials and tribulations as well.
It was very early on a Sunday morning, Nov. 15, 1992, Parker recalled. He was the driver of a car that was stopped at a red light at Forbes Avenue and Cherry Way, Downtown. Another car pulled up beside his on the passenger side and shot at the car 19 times. Parker was shot seven times. One of the seven bullets traveled through the back of Parker’s head, causing him to go blind.
A female passenger, Toni Lynn Brackenridge, died as a result of the shooting.
“I had a big dream to become an NFL player, but that all of a sudden was shattered,” he said.
But Parker persevered. The Pittsburgh native, who attended Langley and Wilkinsburg high schools, soon enrolled in the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind in Bridgeville, and after realizing his athletic talents, the organization flew Parker to Colorado Springs, Colo. He made the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes’ track team.
Parker, at age 29, competed in the Paralympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta. He didn’t stop there, later competing in the World Championships in 1998 in Madrid, Spain, Paralympic Games in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, 2001 Pan American Games for the Blind in South Carolina, and the World Championships in 2002 in France.
He attained three gold medals during his career.
In recent years, Parker found another calling—working with youth. He began working with autistic children in Pittsburgh Mifflin School, then transferred to Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School as a paraprofessional last year. After not working with students last summer when school was out of session, he decided to apply to become a coordinator with PPS’ Summer Dreamers program this summer.
Allen jumped at the opportunity to have Parker at her U-Prep location, though she had never worked with him before. She admits, “We didn’t know what we were getting” when it came to Parker, except that he had worked with high school students and was an African American male.
“He has brought this camp community together,” Allen told the Courier. “He’s built relationships that are very trusting and very lasting. Especially as a Black male, our kids need to see that, and need to see him in a positive light. He has definitely brought that. One of our staff members called him a beacon of light.”
Parker’s blindness doesn’t stop him, and Allen has seen it firsthand. “This gentleman has broken down all boundaries that we’ve had in this camp,” she said.
Parker preaches a three-word concept to the students—“Believe,” “Get” and “Got.” Parker tells the students that “if you believe in yourself, you can go out there and get it, and at the end when you get that diploma, you can say, ‘Now I got it’—and then you develop to go the next level, college—and it’s the same procedure.”
Roughly 170 students have attended the Summer Dreamers camp at U-Prep this summer. The camp’s final day is Aug. 1.
Parker is confident he’s shown the proper respect and provided the proper guidance to the students who have crossed his path at the camp. “You take the word disability, take ‘dis’ away, and you have ‘ability.’ And that’s what I meditate over at night, to let everyone in the world know that they have the ability, because look at me…I don’t feel sorry for myself. There’s no limit to me. If I can go up there and run blind, sing blind, teach blind, I can help you smile every day and not have one bit of anger inside of you…hey, what else can I ask for? This is a blessing in my journey.”
Parker praised Allen for giving him the opportunity to work with the students at U-Prep’s camp over the past month. Parker doesn’t just sit in a room—he’s very active, and in many cases, is running as fast or faster than some of the youth during recreational time.
“This is a blessing to me because it changed me,” Parker told the Courier of working with children. “In my 51 years of existence on this earth, I’m a better man now, I’m stronger, and I can see better.”
Follow @NewPghCourier on Twitter https://twitter.com/NewPghCourier