James Hall, an Aiken Middle School seventh-grader, has focused lately on making the right choices.

That’s why he and his grandfather, John McKie, attended a collaborative project at Schofield Middle School on Saturday called “Right Choices, Right Track, Bright Future.”

The event was open to middle school students and parents throughout Aiken County – providing information and encouragement on children staying in school and making the best decisions to succeed.

One of the keynote speakers was Devon Harris, founder of Full Circle Refuge, a program based in Augusta and now located in Aiken, too. Harris and Aiken staffer Andrew McCaskill work with young men ages 12 to 17 who are at risk or in some cases, beyond that.

James Hall started attending Harris’ “One Degree at a Time” series of meetings a few weeks ago.

“It’s going good and I’m learning a lot,” James said. His grandfather is delighted about “One Degree” and also that James wanted to attend Right Choices, too.

“I’ve seen some big improvement since he started attending that program,” McKie said.

Right Choices, which is expected to become an annual program, brought together the Aiken Branch NAACP, the Aiken County School District and several social service agencies. Joy Shealy is the district’s middle schools academic officer, and Liz Morris is an assistant director of the Youth Learning Institute at Camp Long. They noted that the NAACP coordinated a Back to School program at Aiken Middle School three years ago.

It was time to replicate that effort, Morris and Shealy said. Both were impressed that a number of middle school students were willing to spend the sunny day in a school setting.

“This is about getting them on the right track and developing their future,” Shealy told parents. “Pass the word on to other parents to get involved with their children.”

Another keynote speaker, Heyward Jean, is an Aiken native who taught at Greendale Elementary School before moving to Orangeburg about eight years ago. He’s now an elementary school principal in that county.

“Not only should kids stay in school, but school should be inside of them,” Jean said. “That way, they learn that school becomes a part of their identity and isn’t a job. They were created for something special, and education is a tool and avenue for that. I also challenge adults to be their child’s teacher away from the classroom.”

Many parents have no idea what their children are exposed to on television and social media on the Internet. There are far too many opportunities for them to hear about gangs and being targeted to be involved with him. It’s not a coincidence that 2.3 million people are in jail, and more and more prisons are private – providing a profit motive to keep or return people to jail, Harris said.

“Who pays the taxes and pays for the lights?” he said. “We need to take back who rules the house.”

But why do kids join the gangs. It’s about the lack of self-confidence and young people seeing few options, Harris said.

“Gangs are alternative families, because some kids don’t see real love in the house,” he said. “That has to change.”

Ray Fleming, the Aiken County Board of Education vice chairman, was moved by Harris’ address.

“Parents must know what their children are doing and be parents to them,” Fleming said. “The climate here today is so good with all the parents who did show up with their children. That’s what it will take to get children tied to the values and principles that we care so much about.”

A board member since 2006, Fleming is pleased that so many agencies participated along with volunteers like Troy Williamson, the Silver Bluff High School and University of South Carolina graduate, who went on to an NFL football career

“It’s taking all of us, not just parents, working together to provide the best possible future for the kids,” Fleming said.

Elizabeth Smith of the First Tee of Aiken provided the child-styled golf clubs for the kids to try out. Others who worked with Right Choices included Jackie Barnwell, the Schofield principal; Mark Epps, Full Circle Refuge; Lt. Karl Odenthal and Cynthia Mitchell, Aiken Public Safety; Wyman Pope, Second Baptist Church’s men’s ministry; and Jennifer Minichan, the school district’s family and school-based counselor coordinator.