When he's not busy doing schoolwork, playing basketball or engaged in the daily dramas of teenagers, Adam Ahmed likes to spend time in a fantasy world. One of the short stories he wrote and posted on his Web page included his character's battles with goblins, an encounter with a dragon that "roared an icy breath," and a quest to find "affordable housing" near the edge of a cliff.
Adam, 13, is a perceptive kid with a great eye for details. So it's not a stretch to think the reference to the cliff-side affordable housing might have some roots in reality. Adam lives at Seward Towers East, just a few blocks from the store where three men were murdered recently.
At least one of the victims lived in Seward Towers and was a friend of Adam's family. A large percentage of residents of the towers are East African, so it's like a small town.
Adam also knows one of the suspects. "He seemed like a nice kid," said Adam. "I was really surprised."
But bad things can happen near the edge of a cliff.
Adam remembers seeing a relative of one of the victims shortly after the slayings. "She was crying. I'll never forget her face as long as I live," he said.
"Things have calmed down now," he said.
For Adam, and his brothers Omar, 14, and Hamza, 7, normalcy has returned. Today that means their weekly "Study Buddies" meetings at the Advantage Center in the east tower.
The center, and towers, are run by CommonBond Communities, a nonprofit provider of housing. CommonBond links adult volunteers with kids for weekly visits. Deb Lande of CommonBond said these kinds of mentoring relationships are more important than ever, not just to help kids get through school but to remind them that someone in the community cares about them.
Lande said the number of volunteers has increased as unemployed workers look to improve their résumés and keep busy by volunteering, but there are not nearly enough to meet the needs of kids who want mentors.
"We have a big need for more people," she said.
In another room, Rajan Vatassery is giving Omar Ahmed a little tough love before they settled in to prepare for a test on "Romeo and Juliet," which Omar didn't care for, and "Of Mice and Men," which he liked. Vatassery gave Omar a little pep talk on getting his homework in on time. "You can do it, Omar," he said.
"I grew up a couple of blocks from here, and a lot of people helped me when I was growing up, so I thought I should come back here and help somebody else," said Vatassery, who has volunteered twice a week for the past year.
"Omar is very well-rounded and has great parents" from Ethiopia, said Vatassery. "He's very patient and very calm. He's got the basics to put everything together in the next four years, so I'm expecting big things for him."
After the murders, he and Omar talked about it, and Omar was able to relate it to his own behavior. "He talked about how too many kids don't think about the consequences of their actions, and how he was trying to do that in his own life."
Stephanie Lund has been mentoring Adam, a bright, curious kid who loves art, writing and math, for seven years. She's maintained the relationship because Adam is entertaining and because the studying has helped.
"If I get a 'C,' my mom will kill me," Adam said.
"Everybody gets stressed out," said Lund. "My time with Adam is one of the most relaxing and rewarding times of my week. He's super respectful and gets along with all his peers."
Over at a white board, Zack Petroski was helping little Hamza with his addition. Later, Petroski helped Hamza play a game that, like Adam's dangerous cliff, could be a metaphor for another story.
The game was called "Life."
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