How one nonprofit group puts at-risk students on path to success
By Jessica Griggs
Special to the Birmingham Times
A scuffle breaks out on a school bus during a seventh-grade field trip.
One of the boys is so upset that he’s trembling. Mauri Robinson, a program manager with Growing Kings, is present. Robinson breaks up the fight and helps the student calm down. Turns out the boy likes to write poetry. Robinson asks him to write some and learns that the student is an artist with words. The two bond.
This incident is just one of many that show the positive impact of Growing Kings, a community-based nonprofit group that mentors at-risk male youth in Birmingham City Schools. Said one sixth grader, “When my dad walked out on my mom, I didn’t have anyone to talk to, [but] Growing Kings gave me a father figure.”
Growing Kings, which closed its 2015–2016 program year last week, focuses on enrichment and mentoring of urban youth in grades 4 through 12. It emphasizes behavior and academics; literacy and leadership; character development and a future career.
Since its inception in 2009, Growing Kings has developed partnerships with local businesses, organizations, and civic leaders to provide young men with hands-on, personal experiences with successful community members.
“We recognize that these are the future leaders of the community, and this investment in them is a direct investment into our future,” said Jesstin L.H. Wood, communications coordinator at Growing Kings.
The nonprofit’s 45- to 60-minute, once-a-week sessions take place during school hours “in place of” an arts elective or physical education class. During these meetings, young males learn valuable life lessons like respect and teamwork, as well as how to present themselves and even how to tie a necktie.
Topics discussed include accountability and punctuality; professional dress; interviewing and resume-writing skills; mental fortitude and maturity; and conflict resolution, Robinson said. The young men also go on field trips to places like Ruffner Mountain, the McWane Science Center, the Birmingham Public Library, and the Birmingham Museum of Art.
On Father’s Day, Growing Kings will launch its annual 100 Mentors in 100 Days campaign, a citywide effort to attract more participants.
Wood said this mentor approach to “becoming a man” is what makes the difference between “negative life experiences” and successful lives for many of the students.
Wood grew up with “a love for community and heritage.” He lived in two societies, he explained—the suburbs and the projects—so he knows what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Wood spoke of the encouragement he got while playing little league football with the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club and how it changed his life. His coaches taught him about life, he said. They taught him manners and supported him at school functions. And when his parents died, they were there for him. These experiences helped with Growing Kings, he said.
As sessions go by, a transformation happens, Wood said. “It’s beautiful seeing a nine-year-old and a 29-year-old show each other equal respect and relate to one another,” he said.
The group’s results are also measured by high school and college graduation rates, as well as productive career paths.
“Nothing’s impossible if you put your mind to it,” stated Theo, a sixth-grade student who said Growing Kings is teaching him how to be successful so he can “give back to others.”
Making a Difference
Educators notice the difference in the young men who participate in the program.
As “positive role models, [Growing Kings] gives students permission to think about the future, to explore,” said Dr. Jason Jarrod Dunning, a teacher at Wilkerson Middle School.
Dr. Patrick Fuller, counselor at Wilkerson Middle School, spoke of the real-life experiences and interactive exposure students receive while participating in fun, educational activities. The young men attend job fairs, where they learn about career options and opportunities, and visit colleges campuses, where they tour the facilities and have face-to-face meetings with admissions counselors and students.
Asked about the impact of the program on students, Mario Lumzy, principal of Inglenook K–8 School said, “They love the camaraderie and relationship. They have a sense of belonging. It’s good that individuals can see others outside the school who they can relate to, who they may have grown up with, who may have had similar challenges and have overcome them.”
A day in the life of a fifth-grade Growing Kings session focuses on reading, math, and critical-thinking skills. Students read aloud from National Geographic for Kids or Sports Illustrated for Kids magazines, which helps boost literacy rates, self-confidence, and self-worth, all of which have the potential to raise success rates for the future.
Another favorite activity: Math Hoops. This board game connects basketball and math, making learning fun and exciting by bringing tedious educational concepts to life through the swish of a net and the sound of a crowd going wild.
Mentoring benefits include being checked on and chatted with. “[This] makes me feel good about myself,” said one young man. “I want to be a good student.”
He also changed his style of dress to mirror that of Growing Kings professionals. “I wear a bow tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, and nice pants. I think you should always dress for success.”
For more information about Growing Kings, call 205-417-2478 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.