“Stop right there.”
Guilty, Pierre Mbala obeyed and turned around slowly behind a Sheetz on the corner of East Market and Vine streets in Harrisonburg to face approaching police officers, who asked him to empty his pockets. His heart followed his hand. It sank into the pocket of his sweatpants and pulled out $6 worth of Airheads, Skittles and Starburst that he didn’t pay for.
He knew the store manager and had formed a bad habit of shoplifting in the past year or so, starting during his sophomore year of high school. That’s why he calmly left the store and joined two friends at a table outside on a cold, slushy day over spring break in March 2018 instead of darting away. They’d paid for their snacks, but he didn’t bother and didn’t think to ask them to borrow money.
“I thought I had lost everything,” Mbala said after seeing the officers.
The youngest of six brothers, Mbala, 19, was brought to America from the Democratic Republic of the Congo at age three. One of his earliest memories is learning English by singing along to children’s TV shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “The Backyardigans” while his brothers were at school.
His parents instilled the importance of education and always pushed him to work hard in school. “The world won’t be patient,” his father would tell him. When he was a young man, Mbala’s father sacrificed time at home with his family to earn a high school and college education in the DRC, which set a standard for his son’s success.
By seventh grade, Mbala was an academic standout. That year, he heard about a program that could change his life and help him reach his dreams: James Madison University’s Valley Scholars program. Academically promising first-generation students in the Shenandoah Valley with financial need are nominated, selected and then participate in community service and educational programs from eighth to 12th grade in exchange for help with paying for college.
Mbala was chosen as a Valley Scholar the next year, and a full scholarship to JMU awaited him.
But a criminal record would disqualify him from the program and everything he and his parents had dreamed of.
“Is there anything else in your pockets?” asked an officer.
Mbala looked at his friends in shock and disbelief, then listened carefully and respectfully to the officers. He knew he was wrong and accepted fault as he slowly came to terms with the fact that his scholarship opportunity had likely evaporated right before his eyes. Before he left the convenience store, he called his mother, who he later said was “heartbroken and devastated” by what happened.
When he got home, his parents sent him to his room, and he lay in his bed, crying and praying to God for another way out of the situation.
“In my view, the way I had the Valley Scholarship was because of God,” Mbala said. “He put that in my life, and I put that in danger with my actions at the store. So, I remember that night just really reflecting back on that, like how he has given me so many opportunities for success here in the United States and how I threw that all away.”
His prayers were answered.
The officers and Sheetz store manager had compassion for Mbala, a friendly, warm and kind teenager with a wide smile. In 2015, the Harrisonburg Police Department implemented a Restorative Justice program, which allows those who have broken the law to reconcile with the person they’ve harmed outside of the traditional judicial system, Lt. Rod Pollard of the Harrisonburg Police Department said.
This program kept Mbala’s record — and his status as a Valley Scholar — clean.
“It was a classic example of a young man making a bad decision in the moment and then recognizing and having an opportunity to not only learn from his mistakes but rebuild trust and the relationship with the person he harmed,” Pollard said. “He was just a very genuine, intelligent young man ... It was a complete growth opportunity for him.”
Though there were a few hiccups — including a period where Mbala was dishonest about the community service hours he was supposed to be logging — he eventually completed the process. Now, he’s a freshman engineering major in the Honors College and Valley Scholars program at JMU.
More importantly, he said he’s a changed man, but it’s not just because of restorative justice.
Mbala said that from the time he was a boy, the Ciluban word “buendedi” has been at the forefront of his mind. It means, “Don’t forget where you come from; don’t forget your origin.”
Mbala said his worldview changed when his father, who visits the DRC regularly to see family, sent him a picture of a preteen girl who was dirty and worn down from carrying cobalt. The Central African country produces over half of the world’s cobalt, according to Forbes, which is used to make batteries, and children as young as 10 lug heavy bags of it around instead of going to school while breathing in toxic fumes.
Child exploitation and a lack of funding for schools keep Congolese students from receiving a quality education and reaching their potential, Mbala said.
“It just hit different … I feel like that could have been me,” Mbala said. “There are children in my country who are experiencing these situations, but I’m no different from them. I was just given another opportunity.”
Amid a hectic college schedule, Mbala runs a business that he founded alongside his father in August 2018 called Buendedi Business Built on Love, and he’s seeking to make it a tax-exempt nonprofit by the end of January.
He makes jewelry with beads from Congolese artisans and uses the proceeds from sales to fund education for students in his home country. Most American children go to school without a second thought, but in the DRC, fees of around $40 per semester keep around 3.5 million students out of school — one of the highest marks in the world, according to the Global Press Journal.
“I didn’t take anything for granted at school any more after that picture,” Mbala said. “It was also a mix of action and really deciding, like, I’m not gonna wait until I’m done with college to just start acting on the situation. This is something I’ve had in my mind since I was a little kid … ‘Why am I fortunate enough to not have to experience the situation that my parents always described to me that people in my country face? Why me?’”
Now, Mbala wants to make the most of his opportunity to make a difference through his business. He makes some jewelry himself — nearly all of his beads and supplies are from the DRC — but he said most of his sales are from jewelry that he buys from Congolese artisans, which he repurposes. Mbala said it takes him about 16 minutes to make a bracelet, and he usually does so after midnight as a way to unwind.
Mbala said BBBL pulls in around $30 in a typical week, though he’s sold over $150 worth of jewelry in busier weeks. He’s found success selling at events like the Black Student Alliance’s Fall Fest and marketing through Snapchat and Instagram, where he says he hopes to grow BBBL’s platform by 50 followers per week going forward.
Precious Carper, a freshman business management major, said she knows Mbala from middle and high school and remembers the early beginnings of the business.
“It started out really slow. I remember buying my first bracelet from him, actually,” Carper said. “He’s come a long way from where he started. He has a huge vision for it, and I can see that he’s very passionate about it. Other people can see that passion, and they get into it when they see how much he cares about reaching out.”
So far, Mbala said he’s generated around $3,404 in revenue. He said about half of that has gone to business costs, like buying products from Congolese merchants, and the other half has gone to travel expenses for his father, who’s seeking to establish a relationship with a school in the DRC to partner with and send money to.
Recently, Mbala received a Student Engagement grant from JMU’s Center of Student Engagement, which will help Congolese students reach their potential through education.
“It’s gonna be a long process, but it’s not something I want to abandon now,” Mbala said. “It’s been a long-time vision of mine. I’m gonna see it through to where I can help those in my country and give other people a second chance.”
After the second chances Mbala’s received, to him, paying it forward isn’t just a duty — it’s destiny.
Contact James Faris at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.