Real Men, Real Heroes expands its offerings

Adrian Maloney, 16, wasn't getting into trouble or struggling in school. But without a father in the home, Adrian's mother, Donisha Franklin, knew he needed a male role model involved in his life.

"He was doing OK," she said, "but there's only so much I can do as a single mom."

Franklin turned to Real Men, Real Heroes, a Wichita nonprofit that mentors boys like Adrian.

The organization was founded in January 2007 but has increased its hands-on programs since last fall.

One of those programs is Saving Our Sons, which was started at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year and seeks to mentor and tutor boys 8 years and older.

Another is Teen Heroes, a group of selected high school seniors who tutor younger boys and give talks to schoolchildren.

Fifteen of the 18 boys who began in the Save Our Sons program, including Adrian, have stuck with it. They aren't boys who were on the verge of going to the juvenile detention center or involved with gangs, said Buddy Shannon, president of Real Men, Real Heroes. But almost all of them don't have a father in the home.

"They were boys who just needed male direction," Shannon said.

They get it in the form of help with their schoolwork, being taught right from wrong, learning the importance of respecting themselves, and learning how to treat girls and their moms.

The significance of the group's mission was driven home during one of the early group mentoring sessions at Atwater Neighborhood City Hall, which are held twice monthly.

"We asked the boys to tell us of an incident in their lives that caused them to feel sad," Shannon said. "They each mentioned at one point they had seen a gun pulled."

Real Men's roots

Those were the type of concerns that prompted Wichita businessman and philanthropist Barry Downing to take action 3 1/2 years ago.

At 7 a.m. on a Sunday in December 2006, he sent an e-mail to one of his employees, Polly Basore, seeking ways to help African-American boys overcome challenges they faced.

"That was my mandate to start looking for the most effective thing we could do," Basore said.

Downing provided the seed money and Basore the ideas and legwork to create Real Men, Real Heroes.

It began with 32 African-American men volunteering to serve as a role models. They bring a range of backgrounds — firefighter, police officer, businessman, school custodian, pastor, educator, and county and city employees.

Many of the heroes have had mentors help them along the way. That was the case for Sherdeill Breathett Sr.

Long before he became the economic development specialist for Sedgwick County and an associate pastor at St. Mark United Methodist Church, he was a teen growing up in Chicago without a father in the home.

"I was one of those who fell through the cracks," Breathett said. "I had a person step up to the plate for me. And he's white, and I'm from Chicago.

"When that has happened to you, you want to do it for someone else."

Central criteria for becoming a hero is having demonstrated a commitment to community and specifically to helping kids.

"You're not a hero because you have big bucks," Basore said. "You're a hero because you're there for people."

While Real Men, Real Heroes began initially for African-American boys, it serves all at-risk boys. One of the boys in this year's group is white.

"The original idea was to present a positive African-American male role model to the community, and specifically to younger boys to counter a lot of the negative stereotypes," Shannon said. "But this is about helping all boys."

Initially, the heroes' role was appearing on trading cards and speaking to schoolchildren. But in June 2008, the heroes took over operation of the program with administrative support from the city and began expanding its mentoring programs.

The group now has 38 heroes. Their message is straight and to the point.

"A lot of our boys think you have to be either an athlete or musician to be successful," said Shannon, maintenance manager for Tree Top Nursery and Landscaping. "We want to show them you can be an everyday, hard-working guy and achieve your goals and dreams."

They do that with group mentoring sessions and working individually with the boys.

Saving Our Sons

Alex Robinson, who heads up the Saving Our Sons program and is security director for Wichita's public schools, mentors a half-dozen boys in addition to helping lead the group sessions.

"They're very open and want a relationship," said Robinson, a former Wichita police officer. "They want somebody they can relate to, talk to and learn from.

"They're seeing all the bad examples in front of them, so they know that's not the way."

For Adrian Maloney, the program has given him confidence that his goal of becoming a dentist is possible.

"I realized I want more out of life," he said. "I've learned what a father figure is, what a father needs to do in a household."

Adrian's grade-point average increased to 3.0 from 2.5 during this past school year.

"And he's taken on more responsibilities, helping out more around the house," said Franklin, his mom.

A part of Saving our Sons includes field trips to such places as the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. Earlier this year the group went to a City League basketball game.

"We didn't just go to see a game," Robinson said. "They met with game officials, talked with the coaches to hear what they expect out of players.

"We try to make everything educational."

The original plan called for the program to operate only during the school year, but the leaders decided to continue parts of it during the summer.

"We can't take the summer off," Robinson said. "We've invested way too much."

Teen Heroes

At the same time Save Our Sons started up last fall, the group also initiated Teen Heroes. The idea behind it was to help connect with the boys through youths closer to their ages.

"Most of the Teen Heroes are close to a 4.0 (GPA)," Shannon said. "We select from the cream of the crop."

Among those who will serve as a Teen Hero for the upcoming school year is Cade Allison, son of Wichita schools Superintendent John Allison. The new group will also be split evenly to include five girls.

"In our speaking engagements in public schools, our audience is both boys and girls," Shannon said, "and girls kept asking, 'Can we be Teen Heroes?' "

He said the program's mentoring will continue to be for boys, but the Teen Hero girls will be able to serve as role models to girls during their talks at schools.

All Teen Heroes receive a $500 scholarship from the organization to use for college or a trade school.

Mentoring inmates

Real Men, Real Heroes also does mentoring at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

About 18 months ago an inmate who leads the Jaycees chapter at El Dorado learned about the organization and contacted Shannon to see whether the group would mentor incarcerated men.

"Initially, we felt it was going away from our mission," Shannon said, "but we also felt that the Wichita community could benefit as some of those men were released into our area."

About 20 to 30 men are mentored monthly.

Midway through the first year of the program, the facility's Jaycees took it a step further and wanted Real Men, Real Heroes to partner with them in providing a college or trade school scholarship fund for children of inmates. The inmates use fundraisers, such as selling soap to fellow prisoners, to help provide their share of the scholarships.

"They want to give back," said Breathett, who leads the program at El Dorado. "They've made mistakes, but they don't want others to continue to make the same mistakes they did."

Three children of inmates split about $3,000 in scholarships last year. This year, Shannon said the scholarship fund is up to $4,000 and will be allotted to five children.

No one probably appreciates Real Men, Real Heroes' efforts at the El Dorado prison more than Trevell Brown, who turns 12 later this month.

His dad is incarcerated at El Dorado. Trevell also is mentored through Saving Our Sons.

"I'm learning to always try my hardest," Trevell said. "I didn't always do that."

A model program

Real Men, Real Heroes is drawing attention beyond the Wichita area.

In 2008, Shannon was presented an award by President Bush for his volunteer work with the organization. Bush also gave the same award to Robinson, although it was for his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

A group from Garden City recently contacted Real Men, Real Heroes about starting a chapter in the western Kansas town.

Last March, Karen Mathis, the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters' national office, came to Wichita to visit with Shannon and one of his board members, Van Williams, about Real Men, Real Heroes. She then presented the group's model to a national meeting of her organization in Atlanta.

"One of our goals is to create a mentoring program that can be used as a model in any community," Shannon said.

He said Real Men, Real Heroes' partnerships with the city and schools "sets us apart" from other organizations. One of the advantages is it allows the group to use Atwater Neighborhood City Hall as its base site.

"If you have those partnerships, an organization doesn't have to worry about the expenses of a building," Shannon said. "A community that has the mentors but not the building might be able to use our model to offset costs that often discourage people with good ideas."

One thing is clear: There's no limit of need.

Plans call for Real Men, Real Heroes to expand Saving Our Sons for the upcoming school year to 20 to 25 boys.

"We keep trying to find ways to reach those inner-city kids, finding programs that are relevant to where they are," Shannon said. "We're not just trying to keep these boys out of gangs and prison, but we're trying to show them a road map to success."