As Congresswoman Frederica Wilson sat down Friday morning at the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast fundraiser for her 5000 Role Models of Excellence, she smiled and reflected on the program’s two decades of success.
After the 131 scholarships recipients – in their signature red ties – had filed into a ballroom at Jungle Island, heads high, medals of achievement around their necks, shaking hands with the dozens of mentors who had showed up for the day’s event,
Wilson, 70, had a special request: She asked the mentors to hug the students.
“Now,” she said, “tell them you love them.”
Earlier, Wilson had said: “I didn’t know it would last this long.”
In 1993, when Wilson was principal at Skyway Elementary, near the
Miami-Dade/Broward county line, she noticed more disciplinary issues
with certain male African American children. They were so disruptive, she recalls, that teachers had trouble getting through the day’s lesson.
"It was always this group of little black boys," says the Congresswoman. “I kept asking them, ‘why do you misbehave?’ ”
What she heard was not satisfactory.
She made a point of having lunch with the boys – fourth and fifth graders – every Wednesday. It wasn’t long before she made the link between their lack of discipline and the fact that they had no positive African American male role models.
Wilson called on her vast network of male friends and acquaintances -- every black dentist, doctor, firefighter, or police officer she could find, husbands of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, former classmates and alumni of her alma mater, Miami Northwestern Senior High – to visit her school.
At the first assembly, she said, close to 100 men showed up.
The mentors joined hands and prayed, Wilson said. “They were chanting, ‘God, please don’t let us fail.’”
In a matter of weeks, Wilson was so startled by the change that she took her budding idea to the Dade County School Board: Let’s create a mentor group. School officials, under the leadership of then superintendent Octavio Visiedo, bought into it. This year, the organization gets about $560,000 from the board. The rest comes from corporations and private donors.
What started as a small program for a handful of African American boys at Skyway has now expanded to a dropout prevention program for boys of all races and ethnicities in schools in Miami Dade and Pinellas Counties. There has been talk of expanding the program statewide.
These days, Wilson doesn’t have to spend a lot of time talking about her baby. Events like Friday morning’s breakfast do the talking for her:
Here are some of her success stories:
GEORGE RAY: THE MENTOR
George Ray thought he’d be dead by age 16, and there was a time he would have said he was “OK with that.” He grew up in some of Miami
Gardens’ hardest streets in the 90s,’ the son of a long distance truck driver who was often on the road and a mother who put in long hours as a nurse.
When she was home, she spent tireless hours trying to steer her son away from the often tragic activities that teenaged black boys participated in on their block.
The scenes Ray most remembers were filled with “drugs and gold rims.” He wanted some of that action and started selling crack in middle school.