Most cultures believe that parents must always put their children first. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
At 14 and 15 years old, Lavelle Muhammad was sitting in rehab centers in the Lancaster area with his mother, helping her work through her issues. That pain has never left him and is what propelled him on his life’s path.
More than 30 years later, Muhammad is trying to find solutions for young boys, some in similar situations, now as principal and executive director of Nativity School of Harrisburg, a middle school for disadvantaged inner-city boys. Sometimes, however, life continues to intrude on the safe space that he and the school are trying to create. In just one week last September, two shootings outside Nativity’s home at the Camp Curtin YMCA in Harrisburg disrupted school.
The day after the second shooting, the community turned out to support the anxious students with state representatives, city councilors, county commissioners, police officers, firefighters and neighbors, who showed up to walk them safely into school. But getting back to normal required their 6-foot-3 gentle giant of a principal to emit calm and allay fears.
“I think he’s so good with them,” Nativity board Secretary Sheri Phillips said. “One, I think because of his—he has such a good presence because of his size. And, two, because his voice is just so calm. He doesn’t get overly excited. He has a very calming presence for the boys. They have a lot of respect for him.”
His students echo those feelings, adding other words to the list like “curious” and “corny.”
“Lavelle Muhammad made me want to be at school because he brings good vibes into our school,” said Jahfi Logan, now a rising 10th-grader at Trinity High School in Camp Hill.
Even more, Logan liked that Muhammad is relatable and “laughs at his own jokes.”
As his teenaged experience of being a parent to his parent illustrates, Muhammad didn’t always find it so it easy to laugh at himself.
“I was so angry, so similar to these boys [at Nativity] because I didn’t understand why I was angry, but I was angry by the condition and the life circumstances given to me,” he said.
He was able to channel his anger and pain through his athletic talents. In high school, his coaches and a special teacher, who saw the pain through Muhammad’s popular sports star bravado, gave him hope. That teacher, “who, with all due respect, was a nerd,” didn’t judge. Instead, he offered solutions as “he talked to me differently than anyone had ever talked to me,” helping Muhammad make it through high school and onto the football field at Millersville University.
After college, he felt a bit lost, but that lack of direction proved fortuitous, leading him to Harrisburg for a new start. He had a job working with juvenile delinquents and fell in love with the community, even as he grew frustrated over the senseless killings and misguided youth.
“I just wanted to be an agent of change, so I got with some like-minded men who were concerned citizens, and we would just mentor the youth, work with them, walk around the streets, communicate with people, let them know there’s an opportunity out there beyond what they were given now,” he said.
Since that time, he’s continued to reach out within the community to find others who would help him work to secure the streets. It’s there that he’s found potential Nativity students.
He said that young boys running the streets at night, some shirtless, would see him and his friends walking the streets, dressed in suits, and would be amazed at this sight. They became almost like well-intentioned Pied Pipers as the boys, intrigued, would follow along beside them, asking questions, staying safe. Some did end up attending Nativity School after Muhammad sought out their parents and explained the school and its mission.
Life or Death
Founded in 2001, Nativity School of Harrisburg is part of a larger network of Catholic-based Miguel Nativity schools around the country that were founded to offer hope and to break the cycle of poverty in inner cities.
Nativity School of Harrisburg, although faith-based, is non-denominational. Students are taught facts about many religions, the history of the Bible and passages from the Bible. The goal: to give boys from hardship something to believe in.
As a father figure to many of the boys who come from fatherless homes, Muhammad stresses the need to give them a loving and nurturing relationship.
“I’ve always looked at it like ‘never forget that they’re children, but treat them as adults with a lot of respect,’” he said. “I like to have fun with them … but at the same time, I’m stern with them.”
When he first arrived as principal at Nativity, Muhammad was looking for boys to attend the school.
“We had one, a fifth-grader sitting in his living room when a bullet shot through his window and hit him in his mouth. The next day DJ [Demond Bates, Nativity dean] and I found him,” said Muhammad, who has, for the past 12 years, also worked as a relief houseparent with his wife at Milton Hershey. “He was too young to enroll, but we stayed with him, communicated, and in sixth grade, put him in the school. Now, he’s soon to graduate from Milton Hershey School.”
The streets still call out to Muhammad. He galvanizes other men to canvas the areas like 16th and Market streets where they see all kinds of activity.
“We give them a smile, give them some encouragement,” he said, of the men on the streets. “That breaks those walls—those tough guy walls. You’re not worried about their humanity because once you tap into their divinity, you break those walls.”
He’s breaking down similar walls at Nativity, finding boys who want to be educated, getting boys who are scarred by life to trust and believe and adding educational programs.
To’Ron James, a Nativity graduate and recent graduate of Trinity High School who will attend Bloomsburg University this fall, confirms that Muhammad instilled trust in him.
“He did have a powerful message for us—it’s either life or death,” James said. “You’re either going to do the right things or you’re going to do the bad things. That still hits me to this day.”
At the same time, Muhammad is working to build new programs based off his ideas about humanity and finding solutions to problems. He hopes to start a conflict resolution center in Harrisburg, separate from his work at Nativity. He is talking with local community groups and leaders who are seeking the same thing—“to make our community a safer place to live”—to start such a center.
“My desire is to open a conflict resolution center that community members can come to—a place to resolve conflict and learn conflict resolution skills,” he said. “The goal is obviously to help to lower the killings and the shootings in our community and teach our children how to use their verbal skills to de-escalate. It’s a way to prevent physical altercations—let’s come talk and resolve this without the bloodshed.”
A New Space
Nativity School of Harrisburg, long located in the Camp Curtin YMCA, hasn’t had the space to help as many students as the school’s leaders would like, but the purchase of a building at 2101 N. 5th St. this spring changes everything.
While the school gets more than 40 applicants a year, it has only been able to accept 15 boys. With the new building, which also houses Zion Assembly church and Tri-County OIC, Nativity leaders hope the school will be able to continue to grow and serve as many as 200 students over time. They also hope to add a fifth-grade class.
Nativity’s board had been looking at properties for years. They wanted a building with a gymnasium and classrooms. It was a complicated search that continues to involve big fundraising campaigns. But when the Zion Assembly congregation, which was too small for its big space, decided it wanted to support the Nativity mission by selling to the school, the dream finally became a reality.
The location helps Nativity achieve another dream, too—to continue to work together with the Camp Curtin Y, along with Homeland, to help to improve and make a difference in that neighborhood and in the city as a whole.
Why just boys? Nativity started with just a student or two who had come from juvenile detention. Over the years, the focus changed from rehabilitation to education and the need to build strong families.
“A lot of the households don’t have father figures, and it affects them in school and in their lives,” said board Secretary Sheri Phillips of Nativity’s mission. “Nativity gave them a place they could go and learn and feel a family atmosphere.”
For now, Nativity hopes to expand the number of boys it can serve and to continue to celebrate the successes of its graduates. More and more of the boys are graduating from high school then continuing their education at colleges and trade schools. Many of them return, wanting to give back to the school that helped them break the cycle of poverty.
To learn more about the Nativity School or to donate to their building campaign, visit www.nativityschoolofharrisburg.org.