Heroes helping boys become men

Some of society's biggest problems can be traced to the breakdown of families. And though this affects all races and economic classes, it is especially acute among African-Americans.

That's why the Real Men, Real Heroes program is so valuable. And why it deserves support and greater participation.

As an article in Tuesday's Eagle reported, Real Men, Real Heroes was founded in 2007 to help African-American boys in Wichita overcome challenges they face. And for a majority of those boys, one of the biggest challenges is not having a father at home.

Children in mother-only families, regardless of race, are more likely to live in poverty, be arrested as juveniles or have children in their teenage years, according to the Real Men, Real Heroes website.

Fractured families and missing fathers are not problems unique to Wichita, nor are they new.

Syndicated columnist Clarence Page recently noted how the Moynihan Report became public 45 years ago this summer. The report, which documented serious declines in traditional black American families, triggered much controversy but little action.

Since then, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births among nonwhites has mushroomed from about 25 percent to more than 72 percent among non-Hispanic blacks today. The rate of out-of-wedlock births for whites is now about 28 percent — significantly less than African-Americans but still a problem.

Real Men, Real Heroes — which is no longer limited to African-American boys, though that's still its main focus — tries to combat this trend through mentoring programs and other efforts that connect at-risk kids with positive male role models. The mentors help with schoolwork and teach boys about right and wrong and the importance of respecting themselves, girls and their moms.

It also started a Teen Heroes program that links high-achieving high school seniors with younger boys — which can be a boost for the teens and the boys.

The idea for the program began with Wichita businessman and philanthropist Barry Downing and was developed by Polly Basore. The program is now operated by the "heroes" and supported by the city of Wichita. It has become a model for other communities in Kansas and across the country.

There are public policy issues that are also big factors in the health of families. For example, the decline of blue-collar jobs particularly has hurt the ability of African-American men to provide for their families and gain a sense of self-worth. Also, the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted African-American males.

Though many of these policy issues may depend on actions in Topeka or Washington, D.C., the Real Men, Real Heroes program is showing that much can be done locally to change lives when positive male role models show boys what it really means to be men.