Men turning boys into the hope of tomorrow

January 27, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

For the fourth year in a row, the boys of Rognel Heights Elementary-Middle School issued an SOS, and yesterday nearly 250 men answered.

Odell Torrence heard the call in the night. His pager beeped during his third-shift work for a Baltimore food distributor. When he responded, a 6-year-old asked him to attend yesterday's annual male mentor breakfast at the school. Attending meant racing across town after the end of his overnight work shift, and skipping sleep. A weary Mr. Torrence arrived to watch young Kenneth Reynolds and about 300 other boys ages 4 to 12 pledge to grow up to be leaders. In turn, the men promised to help the youngsters achieve their goals.

"Yeah, I'm a little sleepy, but I wanted to be here," Mr. Torrence, 27, said, wiping a tiny bit of french-toast stick from the grinning Kenneth's chin. Mr. Torrence has dated the boy's mother for about three years. "To me, he's like a son. I promised him I'd come."

Fathers, grandfathers, neighbors, church members, businessmen, family friends -- the mentors arrived from diverse walks of life.

One man had journeyed from California for the annual event, which recognizes men who help the school steer children past societal obstacles.

Rognel Heights Principal Sarah Horsey calls on mentors through the school year to join field trips, to tutor and coach, and to listen to their concerns. She counts the program as among the major catalysts in her students' academic success.

In 1994, the school was ranked third in the city in reading scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, meaning it is nearly at the top among those several dozen city elementary schools that were able to best the national mean score. Rognel Heights, located near Edmondson Village, used to receive federal aid based on the number of poor children it served, but the rise in students' test scores has caused the school to no longer be classified as disadvantaged.

"This is the best way to reclaim our future," Superintendent Walter G. Amprey told the mentors. Funding and programs make a difference, he said. "But all of it pales in comparison to the few moments you spend with these boys. You let them know that they are so important that you would stop to spend some time."

Kelvin Allen let his 9-year-old son, Kelvin Jr., videotape the speakers, who included Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. It was the fourth mentor breakfast shared by the boy and his father, a printer who works at the Boy Scouts of America offices.

The younger Kelvin took literally Ms. Horsey's advice to look up to his father, and turned the camera on him for a moment. He listed his father's demonstrations of love. "He goes out at night to get money for us to put food on the table," said the son. "He's nice, and he supports me."

Mr. Allen said, "I think it's very important, not just in black society, but in society as a whole, to give these kids guidance, because without guidance they will be the ones in prison." Sharing their table was Raymond Nelson, a barber who takes time off from work at the Upton Unisex Barbershop to go to Rognel Heights where he has installed a styling chair. He tries to nurture what is inside the boys' heads even as he is cutting their hair in the fade and "temp" Afro styles they all seem to like. The trims and the advice are always free, Mr. Nelson said.

All hear the same message, even those who yearn to become wealthy rap stars and ballplayers.

"I tell them to read," Mr. Nelson said. "Even to achieve those things, they have to read. Even the dollar's got a number and words on it."

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