02/28/05 — With success behind them, retirees reach out to troubled youth

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With success behind them, retirees reach out to troubled youth

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 28, 2005 1:52 PM

Darryl Dunn's whole life was basketball. He played often and dreamed about a future as a pro.

But he also had a quick temper, he said, and lacked motivation in school. There was no doubt where he was headed: Southern Academy, an alternative public school for students with discipline and related problems.

The eighth-grader's course was altered dramatically when a group of men took on the challenge to help Darryl and others like him on their journey to manhood. The "Boys to Men Mentoring Program" was introduced at Brogden Middle School last year for seventh-grade boys. Many of them, now eighth-graders, still attend.

Principal Earl Moore recruited several of his fraternity brothers to work with youths who were regularly sent to his office to be disciplined. Instead of enforcing the same disciplinary measures, Moore decided there might be a better way to reach them.

"These kids are bright," says mentor Al Lucas. "It's just a matter of reaching their potentials."

Moore likens it to an onion. "You have to peel through the layers to get to the core," he said.

Each week, Lucas along with Fred Shadding, Hugh Jones, J.D. Evans and Jimmie Ford have committed to meet the boys where they are and encourage positive changes.

"We try to get them to study more, get involved in school, build self-esteem, and develop a more positive image," said Ford, a former county commissioner and state representative. "We think we have been effective with that."

Ford said lives are being changed and guardians and parents of the boys are also seeing it.

Moore said that many youths today come from single-parent homes, making it imperative to provide models, especially in guiding boys to becoming men of substance.

The mentors bring different backgrounds to the mix, but all serve as examples of what happens as the result of hard work and trying to make better choices.

Shadding, Lucas, and Evans are former educators; Jones is retired military and worked as a deputy warden in the prison system; Ford has had a lot of experience as a motivational speaker.

In fact, for years Ford has visited schools around the county with Evans, speaking about character education. Evans is now the chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissiones.

The mentoring aspect began four years ago, while Moore was assistant principal at Meadow Lane Elementary School. Ford and Shadding then worked with fourth-grade students.

Now, every Thursday morning at 10, about a dozen boys who might have previously been found in the principal's office or in-school suspension, gather in the "mentoring room" and await their leaders' arrival. As the men enter, the boys quietly rearrange their chairs into a circle.

The program is simple. There are no lectures, just discussions. The conversation is honest, open, with a simple message behind everything that is done.

"I want the boys to be the best they can in life," Moore said.

When the group began, the men said conversations typically centered around either material things or becoming a professional athlete.

"Their value system is slowly changing," Moore said. "When you see these gentleman that are successful, you see things it truly takes to be successful in life."

The men use inspirational quotations as well as different exercises that might evoke a response, such as asking what their three wishes would be. The answers have become surprisingly more positive and unselfish than in the beginning.

"One said, 'I want to make sure my mama has money or has a car,'" Ford said. "Another would like to see his father, and most just want to be happy."

"Now they're talking about happiness and not so much material things," Shadding said.

Values have changed, Moore said. There is a realization that there are "things that will make you successful in life outside the realm of money."

"The thinking has gone from an idealist to a realist," Lucas said. "From aspirations to being a professional basketball player to wanting to be happy, to do something to help his mother."

Basketball had always been student Sean Best's dream, his only dream. Now, he says, "I have another dream. They taught me how to have more than one dream."

Student Dominique Cox recalled joining the group where "everybody was saying they want to be a pro football, baseball or basketball player."

Fast forward to now, he says, where the members want something else -- to go to college first.

Classmate James Smith went to Brogden this year after having attended Southern Academy. He says it was hard for him to stay out of trouble. He lost count of how many times he was in the principal's office earlier this year.

"Mr. Moore would talk to me. I would be in ISS," or in-school suspension, he said. When the mentoring group was suggested, James reluctantly agreed to go.

"I thought it was going to be a boring class," he said. Instead, it helped his grades as well as his attitude.

"I have confidence because before I started coming, I only wanted to go pro," he said. "A lot of people would say, 'You can't do that.'"

He says now, "I feel good about myself. I think it's a privilege to be here because you don't see many people doing this for students."

Student Lenny Stephens had also gotten into trouble frequently last year. He admits that at first he had no desire to be in the group.

"I thought it was gonna be military people, people that would be rough on us," he said. Instead, he heard men talking about how they had acted similarly when they were younger.

"They changed their life and stuff," he said.

It made a difference.

"The second week I didn't get in trouble because they taught me some things I got to let go," he said. He credits the men with guiding him on "how to go away from problems."

He has also pulled up his grades and made the B honor roll. His mother, he said, "was happy because I made the B honor roll. My mama, when I come home and I didn't get a phone call from school or a suspension, she'll say, 'Keep it up' and has told me if I get my grades up, I can get a job."

Student Adrian Amerson said he had buckled under peer pressure and the need to fit in with the crowd, which started a pattern of trouble. He says that the mentors have helped him make better choices.

"In the past, I might have did something wrong and they helped me change that," he said. "I'm trying to change but I can't change overnight. I have to take it day by day."

He now has a dream to go to college, which he says the men helped him discover. And a big change has already occurred.

"They changed my perspective about me," he said. "I would like to thank them."

Student Antonio Gaines is also grateful to the leaders.

"Ever since I have been coming here, they're teaching me not to do crazy stuff like other people do," he said. "Just try to become a man, to do stuff like you're supposed to do."

As for Darryl, he still wants to be in the pros, but he also plans to go to college and ensure that he can support his family. His grades have gone from a 61 average to a B average and a place on the B honor roll.

Darryl said the mentors have taught him "if I want life to be great, start now. Don't wait later to start life...

"My dreams are just amazing. I was actually maintaining one dream; now I think about college, family and a job. I have got big thoughts."

The process has been gradual, the men say, but trust has been built.

"Kids have our phone numbers and they call to tell us if they won't be able to be there," Shadding said.

"We find ourselves looking forward to coming each week," added Ford.

He also credited Evans with taking an interest in being part of the group.

"I certainly appreciate what they're doing here," Evans said. "We would like to see this take place across the county. What's being done here is enhancing their educational experience."

Moore said the program is effective, both in and out of the classroom.

"These were boys I was seeing for misbehaving," he said. "I see them less and some of them I haven't seen."

Further evidence echoes in the halls each week as Moore makes his rounds through the school.

"The boys are always asking if they're coming, so I know it's having an impact on these children," he said. "It means an awful lot to them."