February 19, 2005
By SUSAN KANIA, SPECIAL TO THE COURANT
Douglas Armstrong says
he strayed badly as a youth growing up in East Hartford, especially
by dropping out of high school. But through a new program called
The Connect that debuted Friday at Fox Middle School, he wants
to help Hartford youths avoid his mistakes.
"I came to realize there was no place in the world for
[high school] dropouts," said Armstrong, 29, who is now
a married father of three children and lives in the Broad Brook
section of East Windsor.
Armstrong graduated from high school, spent four years in the
Marines, and then attended the Army National Guard flight school.
He is now a warrant officer with the HHC 169th Aviation Unit
of the Connecticut National Guard, based in Windsor Locks, and
the state's only African American Black Hawk helicopter pilot.
Armstrong is one of a group of successful African American men
from Greater Hartford, all under the age of 35, who have volunteered
to become role models and mentors for male students of color
through The Connect. It is an initiative of the Greater Hartford
African American Alliance and the Neighborhood Enforcement and
"My goal is to leave a mark, to make a positive difference," Armstrong
said. "The kids in Hartford aren't exposed often enough
to black men who have come from their neighborhoods who have
made it in life."
Other members of The Connect are Kevin Henry, a Hartford Housing
Authority manager and law student; I. Earnell Kelly, a mechanical
engineer for United Technologies Corp.; Rickey Rowe, who co-owns
Rowe Enterprise Construction on Albany Avenue in Hartford with
his father; Kijuan Ware, an assistant football coach at Dartmouth
College; and Gabriel Boyd of the Hartford Youth Project of the
Urban League of Greater Hartford.
The men will make presentations at city schools, work one on
one with students and take students on field trips to observe
their jobs. Andrea Comer, president of the African American Alliance,
said that often the boys see the young men hanging out on the
streets with their cars and gold chains as successful.
"We want them to see guys close to their own age who are
going to law school, flying a helicopter and running a construction
company, and realize that's not out of their reach," Comer
"African American Aviators: Past and Present" was
the theme for The Connect program on Friday. Fifth- and sixth-graders
from Martin Luther King Elementary School and seventh-graders
from Fox Middle were a well-behaved audience for Armstrong, Tuskegee
Airman Connie Nappier Jr. and other speakers who aimed to inspire
the students to think big and go on to college.
"There is no limit to your possibilities," Nappier
told them. "The good Lord gave us all a gold mine - a brain
- so all you have to do is use it."
Armstrong said it was an honor to be on the stage with Nappier.
"He broke down so many barriers for black men in the military," Armstrong
said. "Black aviators don't face the same discrimination
today because of Connie Nappier."
The students got a glimpse of Armstrong's and Nappier's profession
when they went outside to observe the landing of a CH47D Chinook
helicopter on the lawn near King Elementary. Several Connecticut
National Guardsmen helped out, answering a multitude of student
questions, as they toured the inside of the helicopter and checked
out a Humvee.
"It was a special occasion to have our National Guard here," said
Jaquan Samuels, 11, a sixth-grader at King. "I learned that
you can get a good education and help your country in the military."
Jones, 12, of Fox Middle, said The Connect presentation was
one of the liveliest they'd had at the school. "I want to go to college, then I'd like the action
of fighting for my country," Christopher said. "One
day [like Armstrong] I want to come back to school and tell the
students about my life."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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