Mentoring program is Dunbar poetry in motion

On High Schools

High Schools

October 12, 2004|By MILTON KENT

WHEN THE BOYS at William Paca Elementary gather for their biweekly, after-school mentoring session, they probably think they are hearing their assistant principal, David Lewis, and in the strictest sense, they are.

But in the metaphorical sense, those kids are hearing the words of former Dunbar coaches Bob Wade and Pete Pompey, channeled through Lewis, a former Poets football star turned popular school administrator.

"Our kids have so much baggage, and the way I approach them is as a father figure, the way Coach Pompey and Coach Wade did to me, where they gave you that individual time, but you know not to cross that line," Lewis said.

"That's how it is here. I play with them, as I would with my own kids, and I tell them that I treat them the same way. When you're wrong, you'll be disciplined. When you do what you're supposed to, you'll be rewarded. It's like learned behavior. I saw how they were with me, and now, I'm just giving it back."

Besides roaming the halls during the school day, Lewis, a former three-time All-Metro wide receiver at Dunbar, along with four male teachers at the East Baltimore school, formed "Boys to Men," an after-school mentoring program for boys at Paca.

The program began three years ago, shortly after Lewis arrived from the private sector, where he was a behavioral therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Membership was originally limited to fifth-graders, but Lewis had to open it to all the grades, because parents wanted to get their kids involved, and as this year's program moves into its second week, the numbers are growing.

Some 59 kids came Oct. 4 for the first meeting, and close to 70 made it in Thursday. As word filters through the community about the fun things "Boys to Men" will be doing in the coming months - including attending Ravens, Orioles and Washington Wizards games, taking camping trips and museum excursions - the numbers are likely to continue to grow.

But there's a more essential component to the program for Lewis. "Boys to Men" is about rescuing a group that is under siege: the inner-city minority boy. In Lewis' mind, helping a boy develop study, social and athletic skills just might make a difference in helping the kid become a productive citizen.

"Once they understand that there is life outside of here, that you as a male should carry yourself in a certain way and that you are accountable, our kids are fantastic," Lewis said. "You definitely see future teachers, doctors, principals, football players, you name it. They just have to be dusted off. They're all diamonds in the rough."

And Lewis, 34, ought to know. Like many of the kids that he mentors, Lewis was the product of a single-parent household. And like many of his charges, Lewis, who grew up in the Greenmount-North Avenue area, has two brothers who are either incarcerated for drug use or recovering from drug usage.

But unlike these boys, Lewis had a place to turn and someone to believe in, and now he and his teachers are that resource for the Paca boys.

"That's why it's important for the mentoring group to kick in," Lewis said. "There are few recreation centers in the area. We joke and play, but these kids are so deprived. Athletically, they have no skills because they aren't exposed to it. I grew up with a recreation center where football, basketball and baseball were like oxygen. If you didn't play that, you were ostracized."

"Boys to Men," funded through corporate and community contributions, is not all fun and games. Each session begins with mandatory study hall, and while the boys get to watch Dunbar football and basketball games, they also help clean the football stadium as a part of a community service component.

"I think [Lewis] was given a chance and he wants to reach down and give these boys a chance so that they can see that they are also valued, and see that there is so much more to life than standing on corners and getting into trouble," said Mary Minter, Paca's principal. "I think it's his way of giving back and knowing what his purpose is in life. I think his purpose is to give these boys something that he was given."

Wade remembers Lewis, who went on to play at Texas Christian, as a hard worker who listened to his coaches and his mom.

"He was just a great athlete," said Wade, who tried to make Lewis a quarterback at Dunbar. "He had tremendous vision. He had great quickness. He was a good leader and that leadership ability has carried over into the program that he's doing now."

And just as Wade and Pompey made a link to him through sports, so now does Lewis get an entry to his Paca boys through athletics.

"By any means necessary," Lewis said. "You make a connection and you flourish from there. If you find something that they can relate with, be it having a single parent or a relative on drugs, where they can hear that you're coming from where I'm coming from. And in addition to that, you played ball, too? Oh, yeah, you're cool. You can be part of my world."

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