It all started with a trip to the dentist when George Jenkins was 13. He was at the dentist's office getting braces when a pair of pliers caught his attention. When he asked what they were for, the dentist took the time to show George how his different tools worked and teach him a few facts about his teeth. George was fascinated and went home wanting to be a dentist himself when he grew up. He encouraged two of his best friends in high school to dream about going to medical school, too. Together, they have gone on to make the dream of becoming a doctor a reality.
This short version of the story leaves out many of the details that have made dentist Dr. George Jenkins, emergency medicine physician Dr. Sampson Davis, and internist Dr. Rameck Hunt inspirational role models who have been celebrated by Dr. Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Essence magazine and many others. They tell their full story in an award-winning documentary and a bestselling book, The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream.
The "Three Doctors," as they're now known, started out in Newark, New Jersey, and as young Black boys growing up in the city's tough neighborhoods, medical school seemed half a world away. As Dr. Jenkins remembers, "There were no doctors or lawyers walking the streets of our communities. Where we lived, hustlers reigned, and it was easy to follow their example." But the promise they made to each other in high school--that they were all going to medical school and would get through it together, no matter what--proved to be stronger than any of the outside forces that threatened to drag them down.
At times, those forces could appear overwhelming. The doctors grew up at the height of the crack epidemic, an era when Newark was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Their own family backgrounds included checklists of different risk factors: Poverty. Single-parent households. Drug-addicted and incarcerated parents. The doctors weren't immune to their surroundings, and they are honest about mistakes they made along the way. Two of them even spent time in juvenile detention centers.
But finding each other was critical to their success, and they now speak to young people all the time about the importance of looking for friends who will reinforce their positive choices. As Dr. Jenkins puts it, "People often ask me how I avoided getting caught up in some of the negative things many of the guys in my neighborhood were doing when I was growing up. I've often thought about that question myself. There wasn't anything special about me. But I'd have to say that the kinds of friends I chose -- positive guys who wanted to do the right thing -- made a huge difference in how my life turned out."
Sticking together also allowed them to take full advantage of a second big factor that changed their lives -- education. As Dr. Davis says very simply, "Education saved my life." The three doctors became close friends at their magnet high school, where they started their practice of keeping each other focused on school and dreaming about the future together. They also found teachers who supported and encouraged them, and were willing to give them a second chance when needed. When all three were accepted to a special pre-medical/pre-dental program at Seton Hall University for minority students interested in medicine, it was the opportunity for them to keep their now-famous promise to each other that they would get through college and medical school together. That's exactly what they did through late-night study sessions, sharing summer job opportunities, admission to medical school together and supporting each other all along the way.
As doctors, they've been committed to helping others in neighborhoods like the one where they grew up. They are passionate about connecting with young people from similar backgrounds, and sharing their story has allowed them to have an impact that goes far beyond serving their patients. They've written a children's book and created a series of cartoon characters to teach young people about the importance of education and positive peer pressure. They founded the Three Doctors Foundation to promote education, mentoring, and health awareness in inner-city communities. They've also written a second book, The Bond, about how their missing fathers shaped their lives. Whether it's in their speaking appearances, on their website or through their books, they are determined to pass on some of the key lessons they've learned: "Never underestimate the power of self-reliance and inner strength -- devise a timeline and a strategy for achieving your goals. And finally, surround yourself with like-minded people who are in line with your aspirations."
In many ways, this story reflects important elements of CDF"s Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Campaign. Several of the elements that fuel the Pipeline to Prison, such as pervasive poverty, disparate educational opportunities, and an ineffective juvenile justice system, influenced the lives of the doctors and the people around them. But these outstanding healers have shown by example how the entry points into the Pipeline can become exit points and lead to successful transition to adulthood. More importantly, their dedication to serve and contribute to their community is the kind of commitment we all must make to reroute children away from entering the Pipeline. Our children, and adults, need more role models like the Three Doctors.
For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to www.childrensdefense.org.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Mrs. Edelman will release her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, in September 2008. The book will be a look at what's been done and what still needs to be done to make our world safe and fair for all children.