These days, the road to becoming a man is fraught with peril. The statistics are frightening. Throughout our nation, boys are suspended at roughly twice the rate of girls. Two-thirds of the Ds and Fs given out in school go to boys. Boys are one-third more likely to drop out before finishing high school. African-American males are particularly vulnerable; one in five receives out-of-school suspension compared with one in ten white males.
So when Principal Lisa Van Loo and some of her Kalamazoo Central Staff were reviewing student data and noticed young men with patterns of missing school, skipping classes, academics slipping—clear warning signs that these students were at risk of dropping out—they knew they needed to do something. But what? Principal Van Loo turned to her CIS Site Coordinator Deb Yarbrough who suggested a Men’s group. Researchers have learned from dropouts themselves that one thing that might have kept them in school was if they had someone within their school they felt comfortable talking to and seeking guidance for problems they facedoutside of the classroom.
This men’s group needed the right person for the job, but who? And then Deb thought of Pastor James Harris. As the former CIS Site Coordinator at Edison Environmental Science Academy, Deb had seen first hand the way in which kids had been transformed under his volunteer work as a tutor. So she approached him, and his response? “Let me round up a few others.” He recruited Chris Pompey and Thomas Taylor, III and took them to the CIS Connections training for volunteers.
In the meantime, Deb started meeting with each student to connect them to the group. “It’s no use,” some of them told her. “I’ve messed up too badly. What’s the point? The Promise isn’t for kids like me.”
“Just come once,” she said. “Promise me that.” And they did. Again and again. James and his team are surrounding these young men with love, speaking to each, as Nelson Mandela says, “in his own language, that goes not to his head but his heart.” So Deb wasn’t surprised, when one Thursday, Pastor James dragged a bag of trash into the group. “What’s this?” he asked the young men. “Trash,” they said. “You sure?” he replied. The young men realized that they couldn’t be sure, not until they searched through it. Turns out, mixed in with all that trash was a 100 dollar bill Pastor James had tucked inside an envelope. The lesson learned that day? Despite missteps along the way, value resides inside each of them and they do not need to throw their life away. Pastor James says humbly of his team, “We’re just here to remind them we’ve had those moments too. And we still have those moments. These young men need to know they can make a difference in their lives and they will go on to make a difference in others’ lives.”
Once skipping school, some on the verge of dropping out, seeds of hope are taking hold in these young men. All eight have improved their attendance and are passing their classes. They are staying in school, setting goals for their future, attending job fairs, arranging and going on college visits, talking about leaving a legacy. When their Site Coordinator asks them how it is going, they now say things like, “I want to be a better role model for my little brother. I’m doing better. I’m on time for class.” “I’m learning what it means to be a man, a father.” “The Men’s group has inspired me to be a better person. They lead me to do the right things. They really inspire me to do my best.” “I’m getting better grades and have eliminated my bad habits.”
“The men’s group,” writes Dariyon, “has pushed me to explore my interest in public speaking.” Dariyon is about to embark on something he once thought impossible, an internship with a radio station.
“I’ve changed,” says Elijah. “I barely went to school. They have motivated me to come back. They inspire me…I’m thinking I might go to Western after I graduate.”
We too have been inspired by James Harris, his passion for young people, his support of students from elementary to high school, his wisdom in bringing other committed volunteers—men like Chris and Thomas to the table, and his willingness to stand up to the silent epidemic that threatens the bright futures of our young men right here in Kalamazoo.
Pastor James Harris, we thank you for helping students stay in school and achieve in life.