It was a painting of King Tut that made Tom Milroy stop in Casville. It was a murder that brought him back. It’s hope that holds him there.
Tom Milroy is a public-health consultant who lives in Durham and works around the world, but these days his imagination, energy and much of his time are wrapped up in raising hope for a Caswell County crossroads.
“Some of our young people have just sort of lost hope,” said Everett Dickinson, pastor of Blackwell Missionary Baptist Church, a little way east of Casville on U.S. 158. “(They) just wander around and exist.”
Casville is the name of a vaguely defined neighborhood around an intersection where U.S. 158 divides a country byway into Park Springs Road, to the north, and Ashley Road, going south. There are two convenience stores, some apartments in a failed restaurant and the volunteer fire department. Jobs are elsewhere, incomes are low as are expectations, and young people “are getting into trouble a lot,” Milroy said.
For the past two years, Milroy, Dickinson and others in Caswell County have been conceiving, organizing and talking up the Casville Youth Initiative: an effort to instill in the community’s teenagers and young adults a spirit for entrepreneurship and a belief they can succeed in life. County officials are behind them, a regional foundation is behind them – now they have to see if they can win over Casville’s skeptical grownups and, mainly, the kids themselves.
“It would be a good thing,” said Ashley Williams, the county recreation director. “If it works.”Teaching, leading
As Milroy describes it, the Youth Initiative would lead youngsters into establishing “some sort of small business,” along the way teaching them how to lead and communicate with other people, guided by a business mentor who is a successful entrepreneur.
Using some issue or event particular to the neighborhood as a rallying point, “We gather the young people ... and then encourage the young people to have some sort of a dream of how they might avoid making some of the mistakes young people are making in places like this, making wrong decisions,” he said. “And then help them massage that dream to become an entrepreneurial idea.”
To gather young people, the Youth Initiative is holding a cookout and talent show later this month, where Dickinson, Williams, Milroy and others can pitch a list of things to do: spending a day with a writer and theatrical producer; visiting colleges; going to Durham to meet youngsters starting a business on a shoestring; maybe invite inner-city kids up for a day in the woods with the local hunting club.
“Ideas keep popping up,” said Milroy.
Milroy said he got the idea working in a village in Zambia, but wasn’t able to try it out there. He was moved to try it in Casville after two teenage boys killed an entrepreneurial friend there.The painting
The story goes back to that King Tut painting.
Driving through the country, Milroy saw it by the highway, outside a “regular country store.” Intrigued, he stopped and heard Mozart coming from the store. Stepping in, and met Sayed Rawi, an expatriate Egyptian artist who had settled down in Casville.
They struck up a friendship but after a while lost touch. In 2010, Milroy went by to see Rawi and found the store derelict and learned that Rawi had been shot to death. Just why, no one really knew, though the killers had been tried and sent to prison.
Grieving, Milroy thought the killing could be a basis for trying his idea and a way to honor his friend, whose paintings were bought by a local arts nonprofit. Inquiring around the county, Milroy met Dickinson and together they began “some basic community organizing” and did a lot of talking up.
As things turned out, the galvanizing issue was not so much Rawi’s killing, but Jacob Turner – a charismatic Casville teenager who died in a traffic accident earlier this year.
Mike Willis, who until recently ran a popular restaurant near Casville, said Turner had been an icon of hope for the neighborhood and his death had drawn a cloud over its mood. But identifying the Caswell Youth Initiative with Turner, along with Rawi, turned Milroy’s idea into a budding reality.
“Ever since it became clear Jacob Turner really was important to these kids, it’s really gathered momentum,” Milroy said. “People really seem to like the idea of building out of the place and in the context.”
So that much of his idea seems to be correct. Whether the rest of it is, he expects to know by the end of the year. Kids seem to be getting interested, but he’s not sure whether their elders will go along.
“It’s a conservative place,” he said, and many just don’t think that anything can change. One of the boys who killed Rawi was even a member of Dickinson’s church.
“I baptized him,” Dickinson said. “Anything we can do to get kids involved in something other than that kind of thing ... it would be worth a lot.”