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The two dozen young men from Chicago’s South Side were summoned to a storefront nonprofit called Youth Peace Center on a Sunday afternoon in late April. They weren’t told why. Some had been shot in their crime-riddled neighborhoods; others “may have been shooters,” says center co-founder Wendy Jones. All were trying to get their lives together.
Soon after their arrival, former President Barack Obama walked in through a back door. “There was cheering, applause, disbelief,” recalls Jones.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, Obama would listen intently to their stories, and candidly share some of his own surprisingly painful early life experiences with the group, all members of the ambitious employment program CRED (Create Real Economic Destiny).
“Every guy stood up, every guy told their story, some very personal and tough,” recalls CRED founder (and former U.S secretary of education) Arne Duncan.
“These are guys who have been through a lot, have seen a lot, have done a lot,” Duncan says. “We had a bunch of guys just in tears.”
The oldest was in his mid-twenties, the youngest, 17; the teen was asked to tell Obama how many of his friends’ funerals he’d attended. “When the guy said eight — eight funerals and he’s 17 years old — President Obama looked stricken,” an attendee tells PEOPLE.
Adds Duncan: “They couldn’t believe that someone of his stature cared enough about them to listen. That was unbelievably empowering for our guys.”
And the guys, in turn, listened.
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They heard Obama speak of “never meeting his dad, his dad showed up for basically a month when he was 10 and he disappeared and never saw him again,” says Duncan. “He talked about self destructive behavior, he talked about using drugs.”
Obama, a community organizer in the 1980s in the same Chicago neighborhood he visited that April day, also spoke of how he “had to come to terms with some of that stuff” to get to a better place.
“Half our guys were like holy cow,” Duncan says.
And like Obama, “not one guy” in the room had a “consistently strong presence all their lives of a father,” says Duncan. Most are now fathers themselves, says Young, whose Youth Peace Center works with CRED.
Obama, known as an attentive, hands-on dad to daughters Sasha and Malia, told the group that with their own dads absent from their lives, all the more reason “you should be in the lives of your own children,” Young recalls Obama saying.
“They need you, they are dependent on you. They have no one else. Don’t let them down.”
Working with young people like those in CRED—encouraging them to get educated and get involved in their communities—is what Obama and his wife Michelle want to do with this post-White House chapter of their life, says longtime friend Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, which will house programs for training and equipping the leaders of tomorrow.
The Obamas’ “lives don’t end after his presidency ended,” Nesbitt tells PEOPLE. “They expect to continue their commitment to improving the lives of the people around them and reengage in what President Obama calls the highest office in the land—being a private citizen.”