By William C. Singleton III
For the Birmingham Times
From their first meeting, Tarnett “Todd” Morris knew there was something different about Micah Whitlock.
“I’ve had some mentees, and the first thing they do ask for money, ask you to help them with this or that,” Morris said. “They don’t understand the purpose of the mentor program. But Micah, he’s one of these kids that tries to live by the book. Occasionally, kids are going to get off track, but he’s very respectful of the project and believes in it.”
Morris, 43, mentors Whitlock, 20, as part of a mentoring program with the Dannon Project, a nonprofit agency that offers a variety of services, including health, job training, literacy, counseling, and mentoring. Morris is a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., which volunteers to mentor young men connected with the Dannon Project.
Whitlock shared something that showed the mentee was serious about making a change, Morris said.
“One of the things that makes me see him in a different light is hearing him say, ‘There’s no retirement plan from the streets,’” Morris said. “When you hear a kid who understands that and knows he has to get up and go to work, that means a lot.”
Since entering the Dannon Project and working with Morris, Whitlock has gone from working at a fast food restaurant to working at Iron Mountain Construction, nearly tripling his hourly wage. He also plans to go to community college and hopes to become an electrician.
“Somebody like me, I was going to find a way regardless, but the Dannon Project opened some doors I didn’t see,” said Whitlock, who lives in Pratt City. “It was a good opportunity. … Dannon helps you if you want to help yourself.”
Bonding with Basketball
The mentoring relationship began in February when Morris took Whitlock to a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) basketball game.
“I’ve been to a basketball game. I had just never been to a basketball game like that,” Whitlock said, adding that during the game he and Morris posed for pictures, which both have stored on their cell phones.
Since the basketball game, they’ve met periodically but mostly communicate by phone. Morris checks up on Whitlock to see how he’s doing.
Morris said, “When you get on the phone, catching up isn’t just catching up. It’s more like ‘What’s going on with life? Man, I miss you. I appreciate you.’ He’s a very grateful kid, and I miss seeing and talking to him.”
Whitlock said, “He helps me because he’s there to mentor because that’s what he is: my mentor But, on the flip side, you’ve got to want it yourself. … I’ve matured a whole lot. I was already mature; I just didn’t know the steps. I didn’t have any guidance. … I started listening to people like my case manager and Mr. Todd, people who were in my corner and didn’t want a dollar from me; people who want to see me win and don’t want anything in return but to see me elevate.”
Morris, a trainer for a data company, has been involved in mentoring programs through his fraternity for several years: “Working with youth is something we always do,” he said.
In 2015, Phi Beta Sigma started a new chapter, Pi Upsilon Sigma, with the mission to “invest into the community and invest into the lives of our youth,” Morris said, adding that the chapter started a program at West Jasper Elementary School in Walker County and met with students each Wednesday.
My Brother’s Keeper
The fraternity’s mentoring program, My Brother’s Keeper, was modeled after President Barack Obama’s mentoring initiative designed to address “persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential,” according to literature describing the initiative.
Morris said, “We were looking for other opportunities to get into and wanted to do something a little bit more locally and here in the city.”
That led the fraternity to partner with the Dannon Project, based on relationships Morris had with individuals at the downtown Birmingham organization that was founded in 1999 by WBRC-TV Fox 6 anchorman and sports personality Jeh Jeh Pruitt and his wife, Kerri, following the death of his teenage brother, Danon Pruitt, who was fatally shot on the way home from school by an ex-offender.
The Dannon Project, provides reentry and crime-prevention services to ex-offenders by collaborating with local correctional institutions and faith- and community-based organizations. Since 2003, the program has served more than 3,000 ex-offenders, with fewer than 8 percent returning to prison, and served more than 100 at-risk youth in crime-prevention activities.
Whitlock became acquainted with the program after he was charged with possession of a firearm and marijuana in August 2018. Following his appearance before a judge to set a trial date, he was introduced to the Dannon Project and asked if he would like to be a part of its mentoring program.
“I said, ‘I can try it,’” Whitlock said, adding that he was ready to make a change in his life.
Morris came at the right time, Whitlock said: “Mr. Todd met me on an upward progression. He met me when I was elevating, and I was on my way. Now, I’m on my way.”
Whitlock said what he appreciates about his relationship with Morris is that his mentor doesn’t lecture him but gives sound advice.
“He’s never told me anything wrong, so I’ll call on him if I need a second opinion,” Whitlock said. “I don’t have to worry about somebody saying, ‘Oh, you’re wrong.’ He’ll just provide his insight.”
To learn more about the Dannon Project, visit www.dannonproject.org.