Benny Hairston routinely finds himself meeting people in the most difficult circumstances of their lives. Hairston, 51, is manager of Century Hairston Funeral Homes in Columbus and Starkville, a third-generation family business.
"I'm sitting with families and helping them cope with the loss of a loved one," Hairston said. "That's always difficult, but over the years, it's helped me communicate better."
Aside from his years at Rust College, where he was a record-breaking track athlete, Hairston has spent his life in the mortuary business. All of those years of meeting with grief-stricken families have developed in him a highly refined sense of empathy.
And it is away from his work that Hairston has found a way to make a difference in his community through his position as chapter president of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, which has 750 chapters and thousands of members both in colleges and, like Hairston, as graduates.
"What young men know best about Omega Psi Phi is stepping," Hairston said. "They all want to learn to step."
Stepping is a choreographed dance popular among black fraternities and sororities, and Omega Psi Phi has a national reputation as one of the art form's best.
But it's a different kind of step that Hairston and his chapter brothers are focusing on when they meet with kids.
"As a chapter, we started mentoring young men through a debate team about six years ago," said Hairston, who believes debate helps young men develop and polish the soft skills they'll need to achieve a successful life. Along the way, the fraternity brothers stress goal-setting and meet with the kids one-on-one to deal with any problems that emerge during the often confusing teen years.
"On a daily basis, as I'm driving around, I'm looking at where kids are," Hairston said. "I had to see young men walking the streets, not realizing they can become successful people. They're just looking at the moment, never seeing farther than the present. That's what we try to do: Get them to broaden their outlook."
The skills Hairston uses in his work help him connect with the young men, who typically range in age from 13 to 18.
"You have to be able to relate to them where they are," Hairston said. "With the kids, I'm trying to understand what they are going through in order to help them become a better person. When a kid has problem, we'll identify the problem and find one of our brothers who understands the situation the kid is in and can talk to him one on one."
As chapter president, Hairston's role in mentoring is primarily facilitating those connections. But that's not always the case.
Solomon Strong is a good example.
"I remember when I first met Mr. Hairston," Strong said. "It was a meeting at Missionary Union Baptist Church. During the meeting, he told us about his business and asked if anyone was interested. I was the only one who raised my hand. After the meeting, we talked and he told me he'd be in touch."
About two weeks later, Hairston called Strong. Soon, Strong was working part-time at the funeral home in Columbus and began to think about a career for the first time.
After graduation, Strong served in the Air National Guard, then headed to East Mississippi Community College, earning his degree in mortuary services in 2017.
Today, Strong works at Rainey Funeral Home in Tuscaloosa and plans to someday open his own funeral home.
"I don't think I'd ever be where I am today if I hadn't met Mr. Hairston," said Strong, 24. "He was behind me every step. Honestly, I would do anything Mr. Hairston asked me to do. It's grown into more of a father-son relationship between us. I owe him so much."
Hairston said that debt has been paid.
"Just seeing young men develop and grow and be successful," Hairston said. "That's the pay off."