The sky was dark Tuesday morning when 60 youth boarded buses at Indiana University Northwest to take part in the inaugural Black Male Youth Day at the Indiana State Capitol.

Local students came from five high schools and a church mentoring program in Gary, Merrillville and Michigan City, joined by African-American males from throughout the state for this initiative hosted by the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males.

ICSSBM chairman Eddie Melton expressed to the participants the importance of the event and their role. “You are representing the entire state of Indiana and young black men. Everything you say and do today, people are paying attention. Think about what you can do personally to make your community better,” he said.

State Rep. Dr. Vernon Smith, R-Gary, welcomed the group, encouraging them to push beyond expectations, disprove stereotypes and aim to be community leaders.

Smith noted that by 26, one of every four African-American males will be a victim of homicide or in prison. “You have to take control of your life. Stop letting them build prisons for you and stop letting them make tombstones for you before it’s time for you to be buried in God’s ground,” Smith said.

Deacon Antonio Gholston of Embassies of Christ Church in Gary attended with members of the church’s mentoring program for ages 12 to 18. “We need to catch them when they are young and make a difference in their lives,” he said.

Montrie Shell, 17, of Merrillville, appreciated his opportunity. “It’s my first time here and I like what it represents,” he said. “The program is very empowering and motivating.”

A teacher at 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Jonathan Ford, attending with several students, values his position as a role model for young men. “I meet kids that remind me a lot of myself at that age. I like to help them in any way I possibly can,” he said.

Following lunch, the group toured the capitol building to see government in session. “I had a group of about 10 who were watching the House of Representatives who just didn’t want to leave,” said chaperone Ellis Dumas. “They were fascinated with how it functions.”

The ICSSBM’s next event is the fifth annual Black Barbershop Health Initiative on April 11, providing health screenings at barber shops in 15 communities, including Hammond, Gary, Merrillville and Michigan City. Visit www.in.gov/icssbm.