A faint scar blemishes the arm of Cornelius Lincoln.
It’s the only outward indicator of troubles in his past.
Lincoln, a poised 19 year old, is on track to graduate from Arise Academy Charter High School in June and is eager to discuss his plans for the future.
He has already received acceptance letters from Delaware Valley and Wilmington Delaware Colleges and is waiting to hear from Florida State, University of Maryland, and Virginia Tech, his top choice because of its music program.
If music doesn’t work out, he’s thought out alternative plans: aerospace engineering and business.
Despite the wealth of academic opportunities he now faces, college was not always a guarantee.
Growing up, his only certainty was constant change.
At birth, he was given away by his abusive and drug-addicted mother to his aunt, whom he believed to be his mother throughout his childhood.
Eventually, he moved in with his father for a year, just after finding out who his father was – a cousin of the founder of Latin Kings gang and a member of Latin Kings himself.
But soon, Lincoln would lose his father, an aunt, an uncle, a pregnant older sister, and several small cousins to gang violence.
Lincoln was 10, and he hadn’t seen the last of the gang. Having lost much of his family, he started his sojourn through foster homes.
At age 13, he thought he got his 16-year-old girlfriend pregnant. He pledged to the Latin Kings in hopes of making fast money to help care for his future child.
Members cut his arm as part of his initiation leaving him the scar that still shows today.
He sold drugs for the gang. He even began cheating the gang, risking physical punishment and death.
“I was only in there to get money for the kid,” who, as he later found out, was not his.
His relationship with his first foster mother proved just as destructive as his relationship with his birth mother.
“My first foster mother was abusive, so I burned down her house.”
Lincoln moved back with his birth mother and her fiancé, but the arrangement didn’t last long. The fiancé beat him.
“The final straw for me was when he fractured the entire left side of my face and bust four blood vessels within my eyes, so I couldn’t see out of them. He broke my nose…..I had a bad concussion, and the doctor said I had brain damage.”
Lincoln pressed charges, but his mother defended her boyfriend and he moved back with the family. After more altercations, the boy “got thrown back into foster care.”
Moving between all the foster homes and care from relatives, the Minnesota native said he lived in 19 states.
“I kept relocating because I was always in trouble.”
He made his way to the east coast to live with a mentor in Philadelphia – Harry Joseph Lincoln, a former boyfriend of his mother whom he trusts and calls “Uncle Harry.”
“My uncle wouldn’t let me live in his house if I was in a gang,” he said. When he moved in, he started using Lincoln’s last name.
Although he left the Latin Kings, he said it took a while to leave behind the gang culture.
“When I first moved in, I had the hood mentality. I didn’t care about anything.”
He said that Uncle Harry,” a man active in his church who had had a strong influence on Lincoln over the years, “put me on a real professional level.”
And now that he is in a stable home with a supportive adult role model, Lincoln is trying to get custody of his 9-year-old brother, Andrew, who still lives with his mother and her fiancé. He talks regularly to Andrew on the phone and visits when his mother and her fiancé are not there.
“I’m really trying to get him out of that environment as soon as possible,” Lincoln said. “When I go to college, I want him to come with me.”
He said he wants to do for Andrew what Uncle Harry did for him. “I don’t want to be like my father,” he said.
“I want to be better. I would love to be an example.”
And as the scar fades on Lincoln’s arm, so do the burdens of a tumultuous past, leaving him – he hopes – free to embrace the opportunities of his future.