In a small retail space at an East Durham strip mall, 25 teens are pretending to celebrate their 100th birthdays.
“I never expected to live this long,” says My’dia, a 13-year-old with glasses and long crimson braids. She’s standing at the front of the room, delivering her birthday speech to her fellow pseudo-centenarians.
In her youth, she says, she was shy, friendless, and unproductive with her free time, squandering valuable hours by binge-watching TikToks and sleeping. But when she turned 13, she enrolled in a summer program called POOF that changed the trajectory of her life; she discovered a passion for modeling during a field trip to a fashion conference, she says, and went on to graduate from fashion school and earn $20 million a year modeling for Gucci and Balenciaga.
At 40, after marrying and having two kids, she switched career paths and became a therapist.
“The legacy I left behind was being a fashionista, a diva, a good mother, and a therapist that helps others,” My’dia concludes.
Leaving behind a legacy is a core theme here at POOF, a teen training center tucked between a beauty supply store and a Family Dollar on North Miami Boulevard. POOF—which launched in May as a summer camp but will soon begin operating as an after-school program—aims to provide a safe, stimulating space for East Durham teens to hone their entrepreneurial skills, learn financial self-sufficiency, and start thinking about career paths.
The program’s name, a double acronym that stands for both “Planning Our Own Future” and “Planning Our Own Funeral,” speaks in part to the set of choices that face teenagers coming of age in East Durham. East Durham’s violent crime rate is 42 percent higher than the citywide average—which, notably, is 73 percent higher than the national average—and in some East Durham neighborhoods, as many as 82 percent of children live in poverty, according to the 2021 Durham Community Gang Assessment.
POOF founder Destiny Alexander, who was born and raised in East Durham, says many of the kids in the summer program were friends with the teenage girl who was killed in the nearby Wedgewood neighborhood shooting in June.
“This is the reality,” Alexander says.
But the idea of “planning our own funeral” can also be seen in a more positive light, she says.
“Dying is inevitable, but we have control over our own legacy,” Alexander says. “Planning your own funeral is another way to say ‘planning what you’re going to be remembered for.’”
While Alexander’s mission is long term, POOF is most distinct in its focus on enacting immediate change.
The program asks teenagers to pick one of more than 25 different trades, or “pathways,” to study over the course of three months—options include cell phone repair, photo booth operation, window tinting, and T-shirt design, among others—all of which require no license or degree and thus enable teens to start making money expeditiously. (Because POOF is staffed by just three instructors, including Alexander, the program brings in volunteer mentors to coach students on their pathways.)
A teen’s chosen pathway may evolve into a side hustle or a career, or it might simply provide them with a model for financial self-sufficiency, Alexander says.
Financial literacy is a core element of POOF’s programming: teenagers are encouraged to open bank accounts, and they also receive daily courses on things like budgeting and building credit.
“We teach them how to make this money, so we also need to make sure they don’t blow it,” Alexander says.
Alexander is a reputable source on this topic; she has single-handedly funded POOF using the profits from her own photo booth business and rents out the center as an event space on the weekends to pay the bills.
POOF’s forthcoming after-school program will look a lot like its summer camp, with a condensed daily timeline that incorporates time slots for tutoring and doing schoolwork. The program will be offered in 90-day segments with activities that run from two thirty to seven p.m. each day.
While the program is listed at $30 a week, Alexander says she’s never going to turn someone away if they can’t afford it; the main obstacle to entering the program is the waitlist of more than 100 teens. (Durham Public Schools is also experiencing outsized demand for its after-school care program). For the time being, each segment will be capped at 25 students—Alexander says she wants to ensure each student receives individual attention—though with more funding and a larger space, programs could grow in the future.
Toward the end of each 90-day segment, teens will set up booths for their chosen pathways in the POOF space—phone and computer repair stations, garment displays, and the like—and open the doors to the public.
“We want them to show us that they can regurgitate what they learned,” Alexander says. “Then we’ll cap it off.”
On the morning I visit POOF, I walk through the front doors and immediately find myself in the middle of a dance circle. A Migos song is blasting and the teens are letting loose.
Because it’s summertime and the group will be here until six p.m., Alexander likes to start the day with a few hours of “lounge time,” she says. For most teens, this seems to mean getting their ya-yas out, though a few are dozing on a couch.
After a few minutes, Alexander gathers everyone in POOF’s central space, a room with folding banquet tables, plastic chairs, and gray walls that are empty except for a small gallery of inspirational posters that say things like “Strive for progress, not perfection” and “You are exactly where you need to be.”
At this point, Alexander would usually put on an educational video, but because I’m there, she decides to quiz the students on topics from previous films.
“Who does the pipeline to prison affect?” Alexander asks the room.
“Us,” the teens reply in unison.
“Why is that?” Alexander asks.
“Because of the color of our skin,” they say.
The morning video usually informs a follow-up writing exercise; the day before I visited, for instance, students watched a film called “Why Japanese People Live the Longest” and then wrote their 100th-birthday speeches. (Alexander asks My’dia to present her speech while I’m there.)
Teens typically spend the rest of the day studying their pathways, learning financial literacy, going on field trips, and doing community service.
After Alexander prompts students to rattle off their record of volunteer work—they’ve brought food to unhoused people, donated to a blood drive, picked up trash, worked at the Durham Rescue Mission, and helped out at a senior center—she asks them why they come to POOF.
“To stay off the streets,” one teen says, and others chime in: “To communicate with people.” “So I don’t have to be at home.” “Because you and your daughter make me feel safe.” (Alexander’s teenage daughter, Jordan, is enrolled in the program.)
Then, one student flips the question on Alexander.
“Why do you come here every day, Ms. Destiny?” he asks. “What made you want to do this?”
The group falls silent—most of them don’t know her backstory—and Alexander starts talking.
She dropped out of high school and got pregnant at 19, she says. One month before she had her baby boy, his father was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“I knew that my son would have three things going against him coming into this world,” Alexander says. “He was Black, he was a boy, and his father was going to prison.”
To support her son—and her daughter, a few years later—she started working three jobs and got her high school diploma, then went on to get a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in public administration.
While she was in college, she was still working three jobs, so her professors would come out to her car to make sure she was awake and coming to class, she says. It wasn’t the kind of life she wanted for her children.
“I didn’t want my kids to ever have to work for nobody unless they wanted to,” Alexander says. “I wanted them to learn an entrepreneurship mind-set.”
She enrolled her son in the YMCA’s afterschool program and ensured that he had strong reading, writing, and financial literacy skills. Her son spent his last two years of high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, she says, and is now at UNC-Chapel Hill on a full scholarship.
“I made sure he stayed out of the streets,” Alexander says. “He didn’t have any free time. I wanted to give you guys what the YMCA gave my son.”
After several years of working as a social worker, Alexander started her own photo booth business and saved up enough money to launch POOF, aiming to help students plan their futures and also keep them safe.
She’s been losing friends to gun violence since she was an eighth grader in East Durham, she says.
“I understood what planning my own funeral was because I had lost so many people in a tragic way, but I also understood a funeral doesn’t have to be tragic,” Alexander says. “We have a story, but what do we do with our story?”
Later in the day, Alexander tells me that she doesn’t usually disclose her life history so quickly—Bill Gates and Oprah didn’t share their stories until after they succeeded, she notes—but, in this scenario, she felt that opening up was key to building her students’ trust.
“In the same way, it was important to me to not get super dressed up for you,” Alexander says. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “BLACK. BEAUTIFUL. PROUD. I AM QUEEN,” plus sandals and capris.
“Because I need to be my authentic self with them.”
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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.