ST. PETERSBURG — City police and other community leaders are working to teach some of the city’s most vulnerable boys and teens the life skills they will need to be successful adults.
As part of the Men in the Making program launched late last year, boys between 8 and 18 spend one Saturday a month together with religious leaders, police officers, lawyers, judges and other men, learning how to tie neckties, practicing etiquette, exploring local cultural institutions and talking about life’s problems.
The goal of the program is to keep the county’s young men away from violence in troubled city neighborhoods and on the right track, said St. Petersburg’s Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams.
The program is an offshoot of one that operated under a different name and focused solely on middle-school aged boys. That program, based at the Poynter Institute, has been around almost five years.
Men in the Making takes a long-term, cradle to college approach, Williams said, and caters to boys over a period of time. About 30 boys are involved, and Williams said program leaders want to reach as many young people as possible.
“I’m a lifelong resident of the city of St. Petersburg, and I’ve seen the city transition for the good and for the bad,” Williams said. “I’m trying to make sure that the part that is not trending in a good fashion, that we start it trending in a good direction. A lot of that starts with our young men.”
A large part of that is steering the boys toward nonviolent conflict resolution, particularly in light of a surge in homicides that claimed seven victims between ages 16 and 25 in about a six-week period late last year.
Helping teens build relationships with male role models to whom they can turn in times of need, and teaching them to think about the long-term effects of poor decisions and the kind of people they befriend, helps keep vulnerable boys out of trouble.
“Unfortunately, some of the boys in our program have grown up with people who have been victims of the homicides of late,” Williams said.
The recent slayings have garnered a lot of attention, and in December inspired a march against gun violence organized by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. But simply talking about the problem isn’t enough, Williams said.
“It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s something totally different to actually do something about it,” he said. “There’s one thing about people coming together and doing marches and those types of things, but when it’s time for the real heavy lifting, people tend to disappear.”
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Kenneth Irby, formerly with Poynter, is a consultant for the program. The vast majority of the boys involved in the program don’t have fathers in their lives, Irby said, and the male mentors work to fill that hole. Getting the teens to complete high school and aspire to achieve goals beyond their neighborhoods and environment is a priority for Irby.
“The issue of black male achievement ... has been going on for 15 years,” he said. “It’s not a new issue in the Tampa Bay area or in the nation.”
Some of the 120 older teens who graduated from the Poynter program act as junior mentors to younger boys in Men in the Making.
The boys meet on the first Saturday of the month at St. Petersburg College Midtown Center at 8:30 a.m. and are fed breakfast and lunch during the day. The program has featured speakers, trips to the Museum of Fine Arts, walking tours of St. Petersburg and an excursion to Patriot Plaza in Sarasota, a national cemetery for veterans.
One aspect of the program focuses on teaching the boys how to dress in a way that commands respect — like learning how to tie a necktie so they never will be excluded from a professional meeting.
“In order to have respect from people you have to be respectful,” Williams said. “In order to be taken seriously you have to present yourself in a certain manner.”
The group was started in 2011 after three St. Petersburg Police officers were shot and killed within a month — one by a 16-year-old resident. Several police officers are involved in the program, which helps forge a bond between young minority men and law enforcement.
Initially many of the teens are skeptical of the officers, but after a while that fades.
“I think after a few weeks they realize that police officers are just human beings,” said St. Petersburg police Maj. Antonio Gilliam. “The relationship doesn’t always have to be adversarial between law enforcement and young black men.”
Gilliam said seeing boys he has mentored gain confidence is among the most rewarding parts of his involvement. Giving the boys something to do on a Saturday has been key, Gilliam said, because if left to their own devices, they will find a way to pass the time.
“Those alternatives are not always good,” he said.
Kierra Mitchell Hamilton, a mother of three boys in the program, said it has been a great influence for them, particularly her 14-year-old.
“He’s come a long way from being very shy and not talking and just (being) distant to becoming a junior mentor,” she said.
The boys typically come to the program by referral, but Williams said they always are looking for new members.
“It’s been a pleasure to see them transition from boys into some very well-mannered, articulate young men who I’m very, very comfortable with going forward as leaders in our community,” he said. “There’s many more kids out there to reach.”