Tough Past Drives Aje Hill and I Believe in Me Organization to Help Young People
As Aje Hill was lying in his prison bed, he realized he could not move.
“It was like I was paralyzed,” he says.
And not just briefly. “The whole day went by,” says Hill. “That night around twelve, one o’clock, my bunk buddy was like, ‘You alright? You haven’t left that bunk all day. I’m worried about you.’”
Hill was serving a sentence for cocaine possession with an intent to distribute. The child of loving parents, he had come from a good home but had turned away to seek a different, troubled lifestyle—one he continued even in prison.
“I was still moving and shaking,” Hill recalls of much of his time in prison. “I was still breaking the law. I was still paying correction officers to bring me drugs. I still had people on the street bringing me drugs to the visiting room. I hadn’t had enough.”
In his bunk, the hours passed into the wee hours and Hill remained motionless. Then, “I heard this voice come to me and say, ‘Do you believe in yourself?’” says Hill. “God said to me, ‘If you don’t change I will.’ Basically, telling me, ‘You’re not going to be here long. All your buddies are coming back and forth in the prison with you or dying in the street. You’re next.’”
That was when Aje Hill decided he believed himself. “I was done running,” he says.
And when Hill could rise up from his prison bunk, he no longer sought out the familiar acquaintances and activities of his past life. Instead, “I went to the library and got some books to keep in my cell,” he says. “Some things to get my brain working. Some things that would get me thinking outside a criminal background. Some things that would keep me from lying to myself.”
In doing so, Hill didn’t just have the intention of changing his own life but wanted to help change the lives of others, as well, especially young people in his hometown of Frederick. Once released from prison after nearly four years behind bars, Hill founded I Believe in Me (IBM) in 2016, a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth. The 4-year-old organization has served more than 65 young people by teaching life lessons and offering the chance for a better future.
Hill calls it hope dealing.
“One of the reasons that I call myself a hope dealer is because I led a lot of people into the dark,” says Hill. “I put a lot of poison in the community. That poison is why I deal the hope that I deal today. I know I’ve hurt a lot of people.”
“THOUGHT TURNED INTO ACTION”
Hill, now 39 years old, can tell you the exact moment he made the decision to follow that darker path. “Me and my brother were athletes, and we used to play baseball, basketball, football,” says Hill. “I was the baseball catcher and he was the pitcher. And when we got in the car after a game, my mom and dad talked about how many home runs he hit. How many people he struck out. And I’m in the back seat, like, ‘Hold up, I was there, too. I did play in that game.’”
Hill felt he wasn’t getting the attention he deserved. “So, I did things I knew my brother wouldn’t do,” he says.
Looking back, Hill says that he was loved by his family and that they were “absolutely not” showing any favoritism toward his brother. But at the time he felt they were. “I developed that thought and then that thought turned into action,” he says.
In fact, those that Hill went on to hang out with, getting into trouble with, “were looking for what I had right in front me,” he says. “Love, attention, hope, dinner on the table, shelter over their heads. The same things I ran away from, those guys were looking for.”
His family, of course, was perplexed by his actions, says his mother, Robbin Hill. “It was devastating when we saw him go in that direction,” she says. Yet, they remained faithful. “My children were and still are my life,” says Robbin Hill.
Even when he brought his criminal activities directly into their lives. “One time I came home, and my mom was tied up,” Hill says. “Guys wanted to rob me, and my mom happened to be home. They didn’t hurt her, thank God. But there’s pain. Pain for what I put my family through.”
Despite that pain, his family believed in him and his desire to change. “I knew that he had it in his heart,” says Robbin Hill. “When I actually saw him in prison, I knew that a work had begun. I saw hope. “
“That family I gave up on never gave up on me,” says Hill.
But change isn’t always easy. “Especially if you are a felon,” says Hill.
Shortly after his release from prison, Hill’s initial mentoring efforts were rebuffed by Frederick County Public Schools officials who did not allow him in county schools. That decision did not sit well with parents who voiced their concern at a school board meeting.
“They kind of scolded the board because we had this guy who was mentoring their children who has been banned by the school system from being able to set foot on school property,” says Brad Young, former president of the school board.
Young says he had never heard of Hill and was not aware of his program. However, “I reached out to Aje,” he says. “We had lunch. I heard a lot about his program and what he was doing, and I liked it.”
Young is now a member of IBM’s board of directors.
Hill’s past gives him “that street credibility that he has been through what he is trying to keep them from going through,” Young says. “He can sit there and say, ‘I’ve been in prison. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve paid my debt and that debt had a high cost. I lost years of my life. I don’t want this to happen to you.’ He speaks from an honest heart.”
“OUR PROGRAM IS ABOUT LIFE”
Prior to COVID-19, the IBM program ran from Monday through Friday for two hours after school. Children ranging in age from 6 to 16 were picked up by an adult volunteer and brought to the Asbury United Methodist Church on West All Saints Street. Snacks were provided. Homework help and tutors were provided. An understanding ear and a supportive shoulder to lean on were provided as well as tough love and high expectations. And even outside activities, such as attending an Orioles baseball game, were provided. But, as Hill tells it, those outside activities were earned. No homework done, no fun.
“Our program is about life,” says Hill. “It’s about the total aspect of being a successful young man or young woman.” That includes life lessons range from understanding police brutality to helping the boys learn how to tie a tie. “Empowerment is part of our mission,” says Hill.
In doing so, Hill hopes to create a generation of entrepreneurs. “So, they can learn how to work for themselves,” he says. “Learn the value of a strong work ethic. Learn the value of responsibility. See how hard your work ethic thrives in taking you to a new level.”
Despite the emphasis on the young people participating in the program, they’re not the only beneficiaries. Mentors such as Megan McMahon and Jamontrez Williams will tell you they are receiving as much from the program as they are giving.
“Being part of something that is bigger than myself is really important to me,” says McMahon.
McMahon is three years sober. “I had DUIs and got in trouble with the law,” she says. “I wasn’t living right.” She heard about IBM and decided to make a visit to help out. She never left. And she recalls a specific outing with IBM that was a turning point in her life. “We took the group on a vacation to the beach,” says McMahon. “And actually, it was the first time in my life since I was 18 or so that I went on a vacation and wasn’t drunk the whole time. I had such a good time with the kids that I didn’t feel the need to drink. I think that is what really clinched it for me. If I could do this, I could do anything.”
Hill calls McMahon the mother of the program and she loves her role within IBM. “I’m the one with the Band-Aids and peanut butter sandwiches,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m the one asking, ‘Who needs a hug?’”
McMahon adds, “This organization has given my life purpose.”
That is the case for Williams, too.
Hill met Williams while Williams was in jail nearly two years ago. Hill says he saw something special in the young man right from the beginning, despite his difficult past. “This kid had been around so much darkness, but I saw hope in his eyes,” says Hill.
Growing up, Williams was in foster care and in and out of juvenile detention centers. “I was always around bad influences,” he says. “And to make matters worse, my mom and dad weren’t married. Growing up there really wasn’t a father figure in the house for me to look up to and find out what was right and wrong. I went with what was wrong instead of what was right.”
Since meeting Hill, Williams has come a long way. Not only is he a valued mentor with IBM but with the help and guidance of such IBM supporters like Young, Williams graduated from high school after coming out of jail. He has a job, serves as a volunteer firefighter and is currently attending college to get his degree in business administration.
“I’m so proud of him,” says Hill.
And as a mentor, Williams sees himself in so many of the young faces at IBM. “But I want them to be better than I was,” he says. “A lot better than I was. And I feel like I’m touching so many young lives right now.”
“I ADJUSTED TO THE NEED”
With dedicated mentors such as McMahon and Williams and under the committed direction of Hill, the program was thriving by the start of 2020. Then COVID-19 hit. IBM could no longer bring people together and, like many parts of society, went on a bit of a hiatus. But Hill didn’t stop. He pivoted. When he noticed that the community was in need of food, he responded. “I adjusted to the need,” says Hill. “And people needed to be fed.”
Many area residents had seen their work hours or jobs cut as a result of the pandemic. Working with other organizations, such as the Frederick Rescue Mission, the coalition had provided enough food to feed nearly 25,000 people by the fall of 2020, according to Hill, with distribution sites all over the county.
More recently, IBM has also begun bringing young people together again. Being COVID responsible, the numbers are smaller and there are requirements such as participants wearing masks. The program, now at Damascus Road Community Church near Mount Airy, is held three days a week and, as before the pandemic, includes access to tutors, food and fun activities. And of course, mentorship. Always mentorship. With the obstacles of online learning and the uncertainties of living during a pandemic, Hill feels programs such as IBM are more important than ever.
“They don’t have that safe place at school or that teacher or a hot meal,” he says of young people at risk.
Among those gathered at Damascus Road Community Church on a fall afternoon are 11-year-old Niya and her little sister, 6-year-old Jaleia. While the program is primarily made up of young boys, girls are also welcomed. As Niya worked on a school assignment about the Euphrates River with a tutor, Jaleia sat contentedly by her side, drawing and coloring. “I’m drawing a house,” she announced proudly.
Niya admits that she did not initially take to IBM. “I had a bad attitude,” she says. “When I first came here, I didn’t want to be here.”
In true mentor fashion, Williams stepped up. “He told me to just keep coming and that I would feel better about it,” she says. “It wasn’t a demand. It was a suggestion.”
Now she comes willingly and has big plans. “I want to be an entrepreneur,” she says.
Jaleia, with her bright eyes and mischievous smile isn’t considering future professions just yet, but she enjoys being a part of IBM too.
“I like Aje,” she says while concentrating intently on drawing a roof on her house. “He is teaching us good things.”