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Taking it to the Next Level

When Phillip Morisi was a freshman in high school he had a grade point average of 1.2. By his sophomore year it had reached a 1.8. By his own admission he was getting involved in drugs. On March 22, 2004, Morisi's friend Donald Nicholas Shomaker was shot and killed while hanging out at a friend's house. He was 15.

"After the Nick thing, I went down even more," Morisi said.

Then Morisi met Fred Mitchell. Mitchell was the youth pastor at Capitol Community Church in Ashburn, where Morisi and his family were members.

"He started speaking to me and got me involved in the church," Morisi said. "He brought my faith up and he brought my life up."

By the time Morisi graduated from high school last year, his grade point average had jumped to almost a 4.0 and he was a member of the National Honor Society.

"He has turned a lot of lives around," Morisi said of Mitchell.

Like Morisi, Mitchell was deeply affected by the death of Shomaker. Following the tragedy, Mitchell knew he had to do something to help the teens of Loudoun County. Last year he formed Next Level 4 Teens Inc., a private, nonprofit, after-school program for both teens and their families.

"We took responsibility of that situation," Fred Mitchell said, referring to Shomaker's death. "We knew we had to do something."

NEXT LEVEL 4 Teens was the something that Mitchell did and now, more than two years after Shomaker's death, he is opening the first teen center in Loudoun County. The center, located on Pipeline Plaza off of Ashburn Village Boulevard, has been completed, but stands empty.

Thursday, April 27, Mitchell gathered with his wife, Cheryl, teens he has helped, community sponsors and business owners to raise money to fill the center's rooms. Next Level 4 Teens needs everything from computers and flat-screen televisions to a dry-erase board and chairs.

"You can have a vision," Fred Mitchell told the audience, "but you need someone to come along and help you make it real."

Mitchell hopes to officially open the doors for the teen center June 1. Once open the center will offer everything from SAT prep classes and teen support groups to private tutoring and nutrition counseling.

"We really need this for the children of this community no matter what their financial situation," parent Penny Payne said. "We have children who are falling between the cracks."

In order to accommodate teenagers from all financial backgrounds, the center will offer cheaper tutoring alternatives, such as homework clubs and people in the community are encouraged to donate money to pay for a teenager to use the center's services free of charge.

"We accept sponsorships for families and kids so we won't ever have to turn anyone away," Cheryl Gedzelman, president of Tutoring for Success Inc., said.

While many of the plans for the center are expensive, Mitchell believes that everything must be top notch in order to attract teens.

"We've got to put the best stuff in here," he said. "Kids will recognize when you just throw these things together."

No matter what the final cost, those present believe that money is a small price to pay to ensure that teenagers in their community stay on the right path.

"I believe this is necessary for this community," Wendy Levy, whose daughter, Tiffany, was one of the original teenagers involved with Next Level, said. "This is a vision that has come to be."

Thursday's fund-raiser raised $5,490, 10 percent of Mitchell's May goal of $57,000.

"We want to get the educational center fully functioning in the next 30 days," Mitchell said.

Even without full funding, the teen center will be offering private and group tutoring, nutritional counseling and fitness classes beginning the first weekend in May.

"We want to get started as soon as possible," Mitchell said, and you don't need a lot of furniture to do those things."

THE FRIENDS OF Shomaker and their parents are firm believers in both the benefit of the Next Level program and in Mitchell.

"The shooting of Nicholas Shomaker was a turning point in my daughter's life," Elita Pallos, whose daughter, Pebbles, is a senior at Stone Bridge High School, said. "Fred helped a lot of kids through a really tough time."

Pallos and Laurie Maceachern, Morisi's mother, got involved with Next Level because they said they were "tired of parents complaining about what was happening to their kids" and they decided they wanted to do something to change the community.

"It is really sad that in a community this big this is the first teen center," Maceachern said.

"We have Giants and Chinese and cleaners in every neighborhood," Pallos said. "We should have a teen center in every neighborhood, too."

After being involved with Next Level for more than two years, Morisi is a customer service manager and plans on working at the teen center, helping other teenagers avoid the mistakes that he made and passing on the lessons that Mitchell taught him.

"He was my life tutor," Morisi said, "and this is just another chance for him to help another person."