Sky Jones likes being the boss.
The 9-year-old and her family opened a small boutique on North Avenue called Sky’s Little Things, where girls can buy things like tote bags, bathing suits, and one of her summer favorites — a mint and lime-colored romper.
Jones is inspired by her mom, her dad and Beyoncé, but what she learned at a program at West Baltimore’s Robert C. Marshall Recreation Center also fueled her entrepreneurial spirit, introducing her to some of the basics of starting and running a business. She also learned to take ownership of her own narrative.
“We are not letting no one tell us who we can be, what we can be. We have the will and power to own things,” she said.
Jones is part of Unlimited Potential, a mentoring program that focuses on entrepreneurship, financial literacy and arts, to help kids identify who they are and want to be. The nonprofit, founded by Haneef Hardy, is powered by his passion for children. The program’s ”be who you needed when you were a kid” motto was inspired by his own life experiences.
Sustaining the nonprofit doesn’t come without it’s challenges, including reliable funding, figuring out the ins and outs of running a nonprofit for the first time, and keeping young people engaged, curious about new experiences and away from the lure of crime.
“I started this idea with no money and I still have no money,” said Hardy, whose first tips about where to go for funding came from the community. He initially raised money by hosting raffles. One of his earliest contributions came from Breakout, a grantmaking foundation.
Hardy was a first grade teacher at Furman L. Templeton Preparatory Academy, which is right next to the recreation center, when he started the program. What began as Hardy staying after school to support a student going through troubles at home eventually evolved into Unlimited Potential.
The nonprofit offers sports like basketball and football, but education and academics take precedence. He exposes kids to new experiences by taking them places like the National Aquarium, a NASCAR race or a trip back to his hometown of Philadelphia. Kids learn acting skills through theater productions, including an adaptation of “The Wiz,” a 1978 musical starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. “The Biz,” as it was called, gave kids an opportunity to explore the history of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We believe that once youth, once people have a really decent understanding of their history, constructing the future, it gets a little easier,” Hardy said.
Sky’s mother, Tracey Jones, helps write the plays and said they’re planning to perform “The Little Mermaid” to help raise money for the program. Jones was part of the original group of women who pushed Hardy to get serious about Unlimited Potential.
“I’m just glad he stepped out. When you look at these babies, you’re gonna see them more in here than out on the streets,” she said.
Hardy doesn’t ignore that there’s youth violence in Baltimore, and he realizes that kids “can’t escape from reality in school or in a community, so they don’t really feel safe” anywhere. While overall youth violence is down, much of the violence committed this year in Baltimore has been by young people. Two teenagers shot at each other in front of Carver Vocational-Technical High School on October 27, injuring themselves and another student. A 12-year-old was shot near Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in September. A 15-year-old was charged with attempted murder in that shooting.
Roughly 1 in 6 gunshot victims in Baltimore are 13 to 18 years old, according data tracked by The Baltimore Banner.
Hardy wants to steer young people away from a life of crime by giving them engaging options at the recreation center. He also knows how the trauma of living around violence can affect a child’s life and tries to ease the impact. His program offers “restorative circles” where kids are able to navigate their emotions through storytelling and talk about heavy topics like love and death.
“If kids are really engaged with sustainable, long-term programs, I do believe the crime rate of youth would decrease because they have somewhere to be, and they have something to be involved with,” Hardy said.
Joshua Ransome Jr., a junior at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, said he didn’t think Hardy was going to stick around when he met him at another program. Several other employees had already left without saying a word. Hardy initially helped Ransome with basketball tryouts, but they also began having conversations about job readiness and academics. Ransome said Hardy goes above and beyond and is “always trying to be inspirational with some kind of speech.”
Antwan Thompson, a 14-year-old freshman at Dunbar High School, said he appreciates Hardy for supporting him and his music. Thompson has known Hardy since he was in third grade and said it has always been easy to connect with him and talk about what he needs to do to push forward with goals.
“I think he is one of the few people that keeps me on track,” Thompson said.
Ultimately, Hardy said the aim is to let kids be kids, however that manifests for each of them. It’s a luxury he wasn’t afforded.
In fourth grade, Hardy said he was living the American dream with his stepfather, mother and siblings. They had the white picket fence, dog and stable income to prove it, but that all changed one day, he said, for reasons he’s unsure of.
His mother split from his stepfather, which cut the family’s income dramatically. Tastykakes and cans of Coke, some of the cheapest food he could find, became a common meal, and he was often unsure when he’d eat next.
His mother also eventually developed a substance use disorder and they ended up homeless. He refused to go to a shelter with her in fifth grade and relied on sleeping at friends’ houses.
“I know at the beginning what it felt like to have everything or just feel like I had everything, and then I know what it feels like to have all that snatched away,” he said.
Hardy circulated in and out of at least a dozen schools because of his behavior. He then met a behavior specialist as he was starting high school and bonded with her, and her family eventually adopted him. He found he was good at track and field and received several college scholarship offers. Many of his analogies about life and nonprofit work involve references to the sport.
Robin Hill, a fifth grade elementary school teacher, said Hardy, a Morgan State University graduate, is constantly teaching the kids to solve problems and think through conflicts. He also helps them reflect on their futures and “realize where they’re living today is not where their life stops.”
The activities and programming Unlimited Potential offers are a “blessing” and “much needed,” she said. As an educator for over 30 years, she has seen mentoring programs come and go, especially those involving kids with challenging life problems. But Hardy steps up even more for those kids, she said. In some of them, he sees his younger self.
“He is drawn to those who feel like they can’t be loved, and he loves them until they understand they are worthy of love,” she said, adding that the young men in Baltimore need more role models and she sees a change in classroom behaviors from the students who are part of the nonprofit.
Hardy also tries to reach the whole family, he says, because the kids have to go back to their households.
A family-based approach tends to be more effective, because there’s no disentangling a child from their family narrative, said Brad Sachs, an author and family psychologist.
“It’s only in the family system and context that we can figure out how to best promote children’s development,” Sachs added. He said parents are the soil and children are the seed. If the soil isn’t maintained, the seeds won’t set down roots and blossom.
Much evidence for Unlimited Potential’s success is anecdotal, but for Hardy it’s defined by sitting back and witnessing how some of the kids widen their perspectives and learn more about who they want to be.
Next year, Hardy wants the nonprofit to be even more intentional about programming. He’d like to compile data and measure the effectiveness of certain programs after scaling and redefining them. Hardy wants to create a blueprint for the nonprofit’s successes so it can be replicated in other communities. Currently, the nonprofit serves at least 30 kids regularly, but likely double when counting the friends or family members that might tag along with a kid for the day.
If he could build a manual for other people to create hubs like Unlimited Potential, he’d break it up into three categories: identifying the “why” for pursuing nonprofit work, building a master plan, and getting across the finish line.
“I’m being that big brother. I’m being that mentor and being that father to son. I’m just trying to find opportunities for these youth, for these people who need to feel valued,” Hardy said.
This story is published in partnership with WYPR and Maryland Public Television as part of the Baltimore News Collaborative, a project exploring the challenges and successes experienced by young people in Baltimore. The collaborative is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. News members of the collaborative retain full editorial control.
Read and listen to WYPR reporter Bri Hatch’s story on Unlimited Potential at wypr.org.