By DJ SIMMONS, Athens Banner-Herald
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Reginald Willis and a group of children from Barnett Shoals Elementary School arrived in Atlanta in early May to tour the World of Coca-Cola and then the Civil and Human Rights Museum.
The day of adventure was filled with fun and life lessons for the group of boys who are part of Willis’ Boys to Men program. And it was one of the most memorable moments for Jaden Jackson, a fifth-grader at Barnett Shoals who has been with the program for three years.
“It taught me a lot about how black people back then have changed our lives now,” he recalls his trip to the Civil and Human Rights Museum.
The balance of education and entertainment is a hallmark of Barnett Shoals’ Boys to Men program, which is aimed at students in grades three through five.
Willis, a receptionist at Barnett Shoals, said he started the program six years ago in the hope of giving boys the skills to become productive men in society.
“I felt we needed to do more,” said Willis, who has worked in the Clarke-County School District for 28 years. “I just see in the community how kids were wandering off, as some people say. I just felt like it was something we needed to do at a younger age.
After talking with the school principal, he was able to start the program. Willis said the fundamentals are respect, responsibility and accountability, lessons he learned from his own upbringing in the church.
“You know the golden rule: do unto others as others will do unto you,” he says. “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
The program begins each fall and lasts until the end of the school year. Notifications are sent to parents at the start of the school year, and the program is free for those who commit to enrolling their children, Willis said.
Pupils meet after school where they engage in a range of activities, from learning how to set a table to completing homework and solving word problems. The boys dress in shirts, ties and dress shoes, as part of learning discipline and personal responsibility.
Ayden Stephens, a fourth year student at Barnett Shoals, spoke fondly of the lessons he has learned from participating in the program over the past two years.
“I learned to be more responsible, to be more respectful of others, and to be more accountable for my actions,” he said. “I also learned how to set a table. So now, every Sunday, or whenever we have dinner, I help my family set the table.
One of his favorite lessons was public speaking. Learning to speak in front of his peers helped him a lot in a recent play called “Hawaiian Beach Party,” he said.
“I got a lot of compliments because I looked amazing, I was into it and I felt it,” Stephens said. “Boys to Men helped me speak in public, so I wasn’t nervous at all.”
The program has grown over the years, although it saw a slight downturn during COVID-19, according to Brian Smith, a behavioral interventionist at Barnett Shoals who helps with the program.
“It makes a difference,” Smith said. “These kids know that when you’re in Boys to Men, there’s a standard you have to live up to.”
Smith said the program seeks to raise responsible men who will leave their own mark on society.
“There’s a doctor in there, there’s a lawyer in there, maybe a president,” he said. “There is someone who will make society better tomorrow by doing what he is doing today.”
Kenneth Davis, a fit paraprofessional at Barnett Shoals who takes part in the program, said it was important that students also had a role model of what it means to be a young man.
“I think defining that model and having them actually see that model in action because we’re school employees is important,” Davis said. “So not only is it something we teach and talk about, but you can see it every day. So it’s a universal thing that they see while they’re here at school.
Willis said that while he intends the program to focus on elementary school children, he hopes to see similar programs continue in middle school and high school.
“It’s not about replacing the dad in the home or being a parent, it’s just about giving extra support to what the parents are already doing,” he said.
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