By Joyell Nevins
Local nonprofit provides guidance for fatherless boys
What does it take to be a man? According to the Boys To Men mentoring program headquartered in La Mesa, it’s more than knowing how to act macho, talk tough, or play a sport.
It’s being able to tell your truth, and give others the space to tell theirs.
“We believe your truth is sacred,” Craig McClain, co-founder and executive director, said. “It’s not therapy, it’s telling the truth. And when you tell the truth to a group of people, it just sets you free.”
Seeing older men take off the mask of bravado is what first got Jose Garcia’s attention. Garcia grew up with most of his family and friends involved in gangs. He was surrounded by what he calls the “old-school mentality” of men not showing fear or sadness, of always keeping their chest high no matter what’s inside.
“But these older guys were telling their stories and pouring their hearts out,” Garcia said. “It was shocking.”
Garcia was first introduced to Boys To Men at his sophomore year in Gateway, where he had been sent after being kicked out of his regular high school for possession. Boys To Men mentors and facilitators came in once a week and met with the boys in a special group.
The group got Garcia’s attention, but what changed his perspective was attending an Adventure Weekend. Twenty adult men, 20 journey men (teens who have been through the weekend program before and serve as a bridge for the initiates) and 20 new boys go into the wilderness for a weekend. There’s camping, hiking, and a lot more truth-telling and self-discovery.
“Gangs are big about familia or brotherhood. It drew me in because I was very lonely,” Garcia said. “But in Boys To Men, I found a true brotherhood. A family that isn’t fueled on hate or fear. They represent the family that loved me no matter what and always supported me — real unconditional love.”
How that family began
Twenty years ago, McClain and Joe Sigurdson were friends and neighbors. They noticed several of their sons’ friends and neighborhood boys didn’t have strong dads in their life. So McClain and Sigurdson decided to take them on a weekend trip. It ended up that 20 men and 12 boys went up to Camp Virginia.
“We would tell our truth, and they would tell theirs,” McClain said. “So many were so angry and so sad.”
But McClain and Sigurdson found that laying their souls bare in the wilderness had a positive impact on these boys’ lives.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday. I watched them walk in, then walk out a different person,” McClain said. “I thought, ‘Wow, man, I guess I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.’”
McClain started to research the problem and was disturbed by the statistics — which haven’t gotten much better over time. According to the 2010 U.S. census, 33 percent of teenage boys are growing up without a father in their home. Since 1960, the number of American children without fathers has quadrupled, from 6 million to 24 million. Boys without fathers are nine times more likely to drop out of school, 10 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 20 times more likely to go to prison.
“It’s a generational freight train out of control,” McClain said.
The problem isn’t that those boys are inherently bad. It’s that they lack a role model to watch and someone to teach them. McClain noted that when mentors start to work with a group, they’ll ask them “who wants to be a good man?” All the hands go up. Then the question “who has a good man in their life” comes — and hardly any hand is raised.
“If there is no man to show (a boy) how to use the tools of manhood, he doesn’t know how,” McClain said.
McCain uses the real-life example of a kid in the program who was doing some work for him at his house (which also serves as the office for Boys To Men). McClain had a stack of wood that needed the nails pulled out of them. He gave the young man a hammer and told him he’d be back in 30 minutes.
Thirty minutes went by, and hardly any nails had been pulled. The boy was straining with the hammer, trying to lift the nails straight up, and almost breaking his back in the process. He was sweating, and angry, and not having much success. So McClain showed him how to work a hammer properly, using the leverage to pop the nail out with ease.
“’I’m a fool,’ the kid declared. I said, ‘You’re not a fool, nobody ever showed you how to use a hammer. But now you know,’” McClain recalled.
The next half hour, all the nails were out. And it hit McClain — this is what much of the problem in society is.
“We’ve got a lot of pissed off boys with hammers in their hands, and they end up destroying instead of building,” McClain said.
Getting into the schools
From that first weekend, Boys To Men started unofficially meeting in a park every two weeks to BBQ and just talk. The word began to spread among single moms, and they got a lot of calls and started working with a lot more boys.
The Adventure Weekends started happening every few months. They became a melting pot of boys and men from all backgrounds and walks of life. A website was designed, and all of a sudden other states and even other countries started calling McClain and his staff to ask how they did what they did. One gentleman from New Zealand even flew out to participate in a weekend and shadow McClain. Now Boys To Men-style programs are occurring in 34 individual centers across the world.
Seven years ago, a principal asked them to come meet at her school. It started with one group of eight kids after school (McClain proudly notes that six of those eight are still involved with Boys To Men in some way). There are now about 700 boys a week that meet with mentors and facilitators in 24 schools throughout San Diego County, and three open community meetings that happen every other week.
These meetings involve a lot of talking, sharing and roleplaying. Those showing disrespect or acting out are asked to leave for that day (and are almost always welcome to come back the next week). The groups become a safe place to tell your story. To be angry, or to cry if you need to.
“Your tears are welcome here,” group facilitator Marco Rodriguez said of the groups. “The mentors talk about how we cry as well. We try to make it as normal as it actually is.”
Behind those tears lies strength. The mentors and facilitators are teaching these boys through example and a sacred space respect, truth, and choice. One of the major themes is that they don’t tell the young men what to do – they make sure boys know the consequences behind their actions, but the behavior choice still lies with the kid in the seat. “I didn’t know” is no longer an excuse for the participants in Boys To Men.
Every three good meetings (meaning the boys don’t interrupt or get out of control), there is a meeting of pizza and play. Every three months, those who have earned the right through their behavior in group can be a part of an Adventure Weekend. And occasionally, benefactors provide special outings like deep sea fishing, golf course driving range practice, or laser tag. Again, those outings go to the boys who have “earned” it through their behavior and choices.
What happened to Jose?
The difference Boys To Men is making is clear. A case study by the University of San Diego from 2011 to 2013 found that participants’ grades improved, school attendance increased, and behavior problems decreased in high percentages across the board. Many facilitators and mentors are those who have been through the program themselves.
“I think the best part of this whole thing is you go in in the beginning of the school year, and the boys are all over the place,” Rodriguez said. “Then you see them start to open up, and by the last day of school, you see a totally different person.”
For Garcia, his first weekend helped him make the decision to get out of the gang life — and his first life goal became to graduate high school. Leaving the gang environment was the hardest thing Garcia says he ever had to do. It took a couple years of learning a new way to talk, behave and dress. Now at 20 years old, he’s graduated high school, jail isn’t even in the cards, and he is a group facilitator for Boys To Men (oh, and he was able to do some soul-searching and life exploration for a stint in Hawaii).
“I love the way I am now,” he said. “I’m at peace with my family and I’m at peace with myself.”
Boys To Men has a waiting list of schools that want their program, but they need the finances to make that happen. So the organization is looking for donations, and they are looking for older male mentors. The requirement for mentors is show up (consistency is a rare quality in many of these boys’ lives), shut up, and when you do speak, don’t talk at the kids; talk to them as equals, and tell your truth.
“We’re not above them, we’re with them,” Rodriguez said.
For more information, visit boystomen.org or call 619-469-9599. While only males can be mentors, anyone can participate in fundraisers such as the One Wave Challenge supported by the Century Club of San Diego on Jan. 21. Register at onewavechallenge.com.
—Freelance writer Joyell Nevins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her blog Small World, Big God at swbgblog.wordpress.com.