Kenneil Cole spent much of his childhood in special education and foster care. He has lost his mother and brother, battled post-traumatic stress disorder and has been homeless, hospitalized and incarcerated.
Now the 23-year-old D.C. native and Delaware State University graduate works alongside D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine in the same office that prosecuted him as a juvenile.
Cole shared his story at the Office of the Attorney General’s third annual Right Direction awards ceremony on Thursday, Aug. 10.
He left this year’s 31 honorees with a message: keep doing the right thing.
“Failure is not person. Failure is an event — learn from it,” Cole told the honorees.
Cole designed the awards ceremony three years ago, as an intern in the office, to honor at-risk youth who are making a positive impact in the community in hopes that acknowledging their good behavior will keep them going “in the right direction.”
“I have never in my life been formally commended by anyone [for my accomplishments] up until I got my first award at first annual Right Direction Awards,” Cole said. “Now, I’m hosting the third annual Right Direction Awards.”
He said the honorees defined the word “exceptional.”
Each year, the awards are given to young people in the city who have overcome major adversity, have had run-ins with the law and made a turnaround or who may not have never been in any legal trouble and having a positive impact in their communities.
The honorees are nominated through several D.C. government agencies and local non-profit partners that serve young people including D.C. public and charter schools, the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the Court Services & Offender Supervision Agency, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity D.C. Alumni Chapter, Open City Advocates and the Latino Economic Development Center.
“We started these awards three years ago because we wanted to support and encourage our young people who were fighting through the struggles and coming out on top,” Racine said. “All too often stories are not about them, they are about other kids and young people who are finding themselves in trouble.
Even the room’s most notable guests, including D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, At-Large Council member Robert White, community leader and keynote speaker Tony Lewis Jr., lent their congratulations, along with words of encouragement and applause, to the young people.
Malik “K.O.P. Fatz” Harleston, a spoken-word artist and three-time winner of the famed Amateur Night at the Apollo, dedicated applause to the honorees before taking his own.
Mendelson called the event a demonstration of Racine’s efforts to move his post beyond defending the city’s agencies and prosecuting criminals, but encompassing “all the dimensions of justice” including working with citizens and encouraging young people to succeed.
Marquette Woodberry, 20, received an award and said the recognition felt good.
“I’m honored to get this prestigious award,” Woodberry said. “I want youth to continue to be empowered.”
Woodberry is currently enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia and works with a mentoring program that seeks to empower males in the city to make informed decisions after high school.