With conviction and a slight smile, 17-year-old Malachi posed for a press photographer as he held a cardboard handwritten Black Lives Matter sign. He was at a Denver, Colo. vigil for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
When Malachi saw his photo in a story on Denverite.com, he smiled again.
“I’ve always been a happy kid,” he said. “Even if it’s the worst of times; I always had a smile on my face.”
Malachi has been through a lot of tough times.
“Me, my mom brother and sister, we were homeless for six years,” he said.
When he was 13, a friend of his mother’s opened the doors to her home, providing temporary housing for the family. Malachi was settling into school, even playing football on the nearby high school team. Then, his health took an unexpected turn.
“I woke up throwing up. My family got food poisoning. Mine stayed for a week. The hospital said my kidneys were functioning at zero. I stayed in the hospital for a year,” he said.
Malachi was overjoyed when he finally got to go home. Then his health began to deteriorate. He remembers medical professionals saying his diet was to blame.
“I was in a group home for almost a year. I only got to see her [my mother] when I went to church, holidays,” he said. “I almost committed suicide in that group home. Those kids there, they tried to start fights with me. I’m not a fighter; if I have to I will. I was so stressed out from not seeing my mom. I almost drank a whole gallon of milk knowing that would get me sick. They [the police] took the cameras and they called the manager of the home and he came to talk to me. I said, ‘take me from this group home.’”
Malachi was able to return home with his family, where he began receiving services from Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. a community-based alternative to out-of-home child welfare and youth justice placements. YAP hires mostly neighborhood-based Advocates who are trained to help young people identify and realize their strengths. At the same time, they connect the youth they serve and their parents/guardians with tools to firm the family foundation.
Cecilia (“Cece”) Roche, now program director for YAP Arapahoe, Denver, Jefferson County, became Malachi’s mentor and family Advocate. She helped him and his mother develop an individualized service plan. With intensive mentoring, Cece empowered Malachi to identify his strengths and connected him to tools and resources to help him achieve his goals.
“Cece has helped me with that a lot., “ Malachi said. “She put me in a boxing class to help me with the anger that I had.”
On dialysis four hours, five days a week, Malachi looks forward to getting a kidney transplant. With Cece’s guidance, he’s also focused on the here and now. He’s working at a Denver amusement park and making plans for what he’ll do when he completes high school next year.
“I love to cook. One of my dreams when I was younger was to be a mechanic, then football; then I got kidney failure. They told me I couldn’t play football again. So, I started making cheesecakes,” he said. “My cheesecakes are fire. I was in a cheesecake competition. No bake cheesecake. Oreo cherry cheesecake. I love making cheesecake. I want to go college and open my own cheesecake business.”
Cece also works closely with Brandy, Malachi’s mother.
“What Cece did was awesome. She’s been Malachi’s mentor; but she’s also been one with me, helping me in different areas with him, like letting me know where I need to ease off a little,” she said. “Anything I’ve needed, whether gas, making it to his appointments – I was having a hard time getting toilet paper, cleaning supplies,” Brandy said. “I’ve been able to talk to Cece, and she comes through.”
Malachi said one of the things he most appreciates about YAP is how it’s helped his mother.
“My mom has changed a lot since YAP came. Since I’ve been doing better, I see my mom being happy.”
Through YAP, Malachi understands the importance of advocating for himself and others. It’s in part what drew him to the local George Floyd vigil and Black Lives Matter protest. The other motivation was something that happened to him when he was 15.
“One time I got stopped by this cop, I was walking home. This cop stopped me because of how my hoodie looked and because of my skin. He said you look just like the dude. I said, ‘call my mom.’ They detained me and had me on the curb in handcuffs,” he said. “I was scared. I said, ‘I’m not the person you’re looking for.’ I said, ‘Call my mom, I live right up the street.’”
He said he sat in handcuffs for at least an hour.
“I was afraid they were going to take me in. They said I looked just like the guy. They didn’t even call my mom. They just looked up my name and they let me go.,” he said.
Malachi said he’d put the entire incident behind him until the protest gave him an outlet for his feelings.
“That’s why I’m at the protests. Everybody should know that Black lives matter. A lot of people don’t know. They don’t understand.”
Malachi appreciates the opportunity to give back. He’s also grateful for all Cece has done to help reinforce the foundation that empowers him to do so.
“I’m happy. I’m a young man who has a family that loves me and cares about me.”
To learn more about YAP, please visit www.yapinc.org.