MILWAUKEE -- Some might say the cards are stacked against African-American boys, but others are actively reshuffling the deck. One effort to meet the boys where they are and help them soar can be found in Operation Dream, a nonprofit mentoring program for Milwaukee boys from age 4 to 19. The younger boys meet every Saturday during the academic year starting at 8 a.m. The older boys also have summer activities.
Rodney Bourrage, Operation Dream founder said the goal is to teach them to survive and thrive.
"You survive through hard work and education, and you thrive through believing in yourself and using your support systems around you," said Bourrage.
FOX6 caught up with about 70 boys, 4-years-old to 13-years-old as they arrived on a recent Saturday at Holton Youth Center for the program. You could call it organized chaos as they signed in and were given hangers to hang up their coats. The boys smiled, giggled and greeted each other and were soon led to an eating area where they were given bowls of cereal.
Then it was off to the gym where they marched, military style, to the direction of a young man who himself came through the Operation Dream program. The 15-minute drills serve a purpose.
"It's good for discipline, instruction and teamwork -- so they do all kinds of formations, salutes and all types of about-face," said Bourrage.
The young boys are taught life skills, cultural awareness, health and fitness, academic enrichment and organized sports.
Bourrage founded Operation Dream in 2006 to keep these boys off the streets, out of gangs and most importantly, alive. National statistics show African-American males have an extremely high rate of incarceration compared to other races.
Kee'Shawn Collins' mother put him in the program at age 13.
"I wasn't all gung-ho about it at first. You know, it's taking my Saturdays away from me," Collins said.
Then he saw young guys like him with work-related leadership responsibilities.
"And I'm like, 'I want to do that,' so it quickly turned from 'I don't want to be here' to 'I want to be working,'" Collins said.
When the boys enter the seventh-grade, they can apply for acceptance into Operation Work.
"Our program is to teach productivity and citizenship and to teach self-sufficiency. We want our boys to be working people -- professional people -- to get educated to come back and give back to their community," said Bourrage.
Collins, now a high school senior, says Operation Work taught him a strong work ethic, but something else has made just as great of an impact. Collins, like the other 45 young men in Operation Work, get a member support coach assigned to them, considered to be the jewel of this program. The member support coaches are available to the teenagers 24/7.
"All the time," said Sedale Washington with a laugh.
He's a coach and program coordinator for Operation Work.
"A lot of the times they're in crisis. Sometimes the parents call me 2 and 3 in the morning saying 'I can't find my son. Will you help me?'" Washington said.
The coaches know their mentees friends, teachers and hangouts.
FOX6 heard the boys describe their support coach with words like consistent, dependable and surrogate father. That is important when you consider 85 percent of all young people in prison come from fatherless homes.
"I'm a very closed off person," explained Collins. "I don't like talking about my feelings because, you know, I'm scared of being judged -- especially by family and all of that, so having somebody who's unbiased. who will talk to me in a real sense and actually help me through that, helped me to control it a little bit better."
Washington, a former fifth-grade teacher, was with some of his mentees on a work site at Evangelical Covenant Church in Wauwatosa. Their work experiences include cleaning churches, shoveling snow and helping out at food pantries. The participants said they like what they do, and the incentive.
"We get paid," said Joshua Hodges.
Perry Gilbert said it is more about the people.
"Everybody to me right here is like family because you can sit down, talk and work together. It ain't just one job thing. Just, you work together as a family," Gilbert said.
The teenagers are also taught life skills, resume and interview training.
"Just so that basically, once we get these kids into real-life environments, they're not like deer in headlights," said Washington.
This program carries into the summer too -- taking the boys beyond their neighborhoods on college tours, tailgating, camping, fishing.
"First time I went fishing. First time I went camping was with Operation Dream also," said Davontae Franklin.
Operation Dream also partners with University School of Milwaukee, taking kids to the school on Sundays for tutoring.
Bourrage said there are many more boys. The need is great and expansion is necessary. They need volunteers, especially African-American men.
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