Last weekend, Fred Mitchell took the first enormous step toward opening Loudoun's first private nonprofit after-school program for teens.
Mitchell, a youth pastor at Capital Community Church in Ashburn, signed a five-year lease for 2,700 square feet in a new building off Waxpool Road. The facility, Next Level 4 Teens, will open by the end of the year.
It's the culmination of a strange journey for Mitchell that was born in tragedy.
It's also the result of the confluence of Mitchell and another Ashburn family that also saw children struggling, ending in a remarkable $639,000 donation that will fully fund the construction of the educational center and offices.
Sixteen months ago, 15-year-old Nick Shomaker died after being shot by a friend in a basement after both smoked marijuana. The Broad Run freshman's death took Ashburn, a quiet and relatively crime-free suburb, by surprise.
Mitchell mobilized instantly, reaching out to Nick's grieving mother and organizing a march on the boy's behalf. He founded Next Level 4 Teens' after-school program at Stone Bridge, where at-risk students taught each other about drinking, drugs, guns and more. He started a tutoring program held in his church's basement.
Just earlier this year, Mitchell was talking about taking Next Level's after-school program to every high school in the county. But now that he's got the Next Level center in the works, his ambitions have shifted.
"This educational center is just the first," he said. "My vision is this educational center will be duplicated again and again in Loudoun County."
MITCHELL'S journey toward expanding Next Level would never have become a reality if LaSondra Gray's sister's children hadn't come to live with her last fall.
In Rochester, N.Y., Gray's niece and two nephews were struggling with obesity and poor grades. The school system, which has closed some schools in recent years, wasn't helping any — and so Gray took the middle-school-aged children in with her own two children, a 5-year-old and an 18-month-old, in the hopes that Loudoun's well-respected public schools could help.
Gray immediately became aware of the simple lack of healthy things to do for middle-school-aged children in Ashburn. She saw the teenagers hanging out in the Giant parking lot. She heard about the drugs being passed around at local movie nights.
"The streets are out there calling our kids," she said. "We need something that can compete with what's out there."
Gray is already in the business of helping teenagers' self-image — she's on the verge of opening Omagi Medical Spa and Imaging Center in Broadlands, the first of its kind in Loudoun. In addition to cosmetic and spa products, Omagi will offer specialized acne and facial treatments for children.
While Gray attended Capital Community Church, she wasn't overly familiar with Mitchell — the two only knew each other by name until her niece and nephews started raving about the charismatic youth pastor.
Finally, they talked. And last weekend, the consulting firm Gray owns, the Barrington Group, made the down payment on the construction of Next Level's education center.
The Barrington Group will fund the entire construction of Next Level's office space and educational center. At $639,000, it's about the price of a single-family home here in Ashburn.
"I just thought to myself, wow, this would be such a benefit to the community as a whole," Gray said. "It didn't take a lot of hesitation."
THE OPENING OF Next Level's educational center means that Mitchell will discontinue his after-school program at Stone Bridge, which has received glowing praise from students, principal Jim Person and Nick Shomaker's mom, Lori Shomaker.
The philosophy, however, will continue. At the educational center, Mitchell will share time with student leaders who will teach teenagers about the dangers of the street.
And via a new entity called Project Identify, Mitchell will still bring in the local high schools' most at-risk students.
Guidance counselors at Loudoun's high schools will identify the students needing the most help and refer them to Mitchell, who will take them in for an hour and a half during the school day on a weekly basis.
"I would want to get out of school for an hour and a half," Mitchell said with a grin. "Really, it'll be fun."
Once inside Next Level's walls, the first thing students and parents will be greeted with is a photograph of Nick Shomaker. Then, they'll see the pool table and flat-screen television.
With a mix of structured and unstructured time, teenagers can play video games and then attend seminars on the SATs, teen pregnancy, leadership, self-confidence and more. Mitchell, always ambitious, wants to have every resource available.
"We're going to be the only nonprofit where, if the parent says, my child just tried to commit suicide, we can help her," Mitchell said. "It is the first of its kind. You walk in the building, whatever your child's going through, then Next Level can help them."
Parents with children not in Project Identify can also purchase monthly memberships at an as-of-yet undetermined fee, but Mitchell said it'll be in line with YMCA membership fees.
Next Level will offer services to low-income families, too, but Mitchell wants to see parents pay what they can — even if it's just a few dollars at a time.
"The parents got to take ownership," he said. "I love free stuff, but really, people abuse free stuff. They've got to pay for something."
MANY OF Next Level's offerings will be contracted out by Mitchell. A local doctor will be on call. Mitchell's wife will serve as nutritional consultant. He's not sure at this point if the sex ed will be abstinence-only — and therein lies part of why Mitchell's taking the program out of his church's basement.
A youth pastor for 10 years, Mitchell has touted Next Level's secular nature since it began last year. His church has not donated any money, and there is no Christian slant to any of Mitchell's tutoring. He knew he couldn't get into Stone Bridge as a youth pastor, so instead he approached the principal as the chair of an education-based coalition.
His approach has worked. Less than two years after Nick Shomaker's death, the center will open with both private and corporate sponsorship — although Mitchell's quick to point out that he can always use more tax-deductible donations.
Mitchell doesn't doubt that the center's 50-student capacity will be filled in no time.
"Once it's maxed out in the first 12 months, then you know you're going to have to put up another one," he said.
He always has had strong word-of-mouth support, with the success of his Stone Bridge and tutoring programs under his belt. Student leaders have already begun coming forth from high schools all over Loudoun.
Midori Oglesby, a rising sophomore at Heritage, heard of Mitchell through a friend who worships at Capital Community. She wants to help other teenagers learn about teen pregnancy and gang violence.
She brims with praise for Mitchell, who tends to have this effect on teens.
"He is awesome. I don't know how to put it into words," Midori said. "He can take a leadership role and still interest you at a teen level. He's someone you can talk to. I tell him about my day at school."
To learn about Next Level 4 Teens, or to donate, visit www.nextlevel4teens.org.