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.”
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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.
“Older guys got me into it. They had the nice cars, beautiful women.”
He said he never touched the stuff himself, making his illicit drug trade strictly an entrepreneurial venture to get cash.
“People who did drugs were strung out,” he said.
He would forward his mother’s check up calls to his cellphone. “She never knew where I was.”
When his parents’ marriage fell apart, the unsupervised teen became even more angry and isolated. His mother moved them to Homestead. As his father’s visits became more infrequent, he began to have run-ins with the police. After he spent a weekend in jail for drug possession, a South Dade Senior High teacher gave the 10th grader an option: Join the 5000 Role Models for Excellence program or be suspended.
“I knew jail wasn’t for me,’’ he said. “The smell alone was horrible.”
The program has introduced him to politicians like Barack Obama in 2007 and former Gov. Jeb Bush. He is now a mentor in the program.
Today, Ray, 30, is the first college graduate in his family. He holds an MBA from Florida International University, and is the manager of the Small Business
Education Program at Miami Dade College, where he is also an adjunct professor.
He is also the first person Congresswoman Frederica Wilson mentioned when she talks about current mentors.
“She’s like a second mother to me,” Ray says. “You don’t want to mess up when she’s around.”
– Karen Burkett
JOHN BATTLE: THE ATHLETE
People told John Battle he was born to be a football player. But achieving that goal was difficult for the 15-year-old standout defensive back at Miami Killian Senior High.
He had potential, but like other boys his age, immaturity was getting in the way. His father didn’t live with him and he had few positive male role models to look up to.
When Battle became a father at 15, he thought his life was over.
But he had on his side two Killian teachers involved with the Role Models program - Katrina Wilson and Dwight Bernard.
He confided in Wilson and Bernard, thinking he had disappointed them.
They reassured him that he still had power to achieve.
“Just having those two in my corner . . . gave me a sense that they truly cared about my overall well being,” Battle said.
They recommended him for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence.
“They pulled some things out of me that I never knew I had,” Battle said.
Battle graduated with honors from Florida A&M University, and went on to get his master’s from Nova Southeastern University. He will soon begin a Ph.D program there.
He is now a professional director, founder of a non-profit theater ensemble and drama teacher at Hallandale Magnet High School.
The 5000 Role Models program took him to conferences in Atlanta and New York, and put him in main stage theater productions before he even knew he wanted to pursue acting as a career.
His mentors in the program gave the young men of 5000 Role Models the sense that they could be successful.
“They taught us how to be better human beings and how to fit into this world,” Battle said. “I can say this for a fact. They saw our futures far beyond what we did.”
- Erin Jester
ROGER ELLISON: THE LEADER
Despite challenging surroundings at Miami Killian Senior High, Roger Ellison was a standout.
He had a supportive family. He grew up in Knowles Estates, a Kendall neighborhood that was founded by his great-grandfather, John Knowles, who built the area into a thriving black suburban neighborhood – a rarity back then, Ellison said.
He carried with him that legacy of his great-grandfather, who died around the time he was born.
“I had that to kind of steer me and guide me,” he said.
While his neighborhood was pretty quiet, Ellison saw plenty of boys his age at Miami Killian Senior High, getting involved in drugs and crime – a pattern he was determined to avoid.
Around that time, Killian administrators were looking for a handful of young men to be examples for their peers. When he was asked to join the 5000 Role Models of Excellence, the 17-year-old junior rose to the occasion.
Being a leader wasn’t hard, he said. He’d always felt that he was a positive influence in his group of friends.
Joining the program reassured Ellison he was on the right path.
“I don’t know if I would’ve had that particular conviction at that time,” he said. “Everything is about timing.”
Ellison, now 36, went on to Miami-Dade College and then Jones College, in Kendall. He now does mortgage consulting and private business consulting in South Miami.
He said he still uses the skills he learned in the program today. As a coach for the Miami Coconut Grove Track Club for the last five years, he deals with a lot of troubled kids.
Middle school- and high school-aged boys are impressionable, Ellison says. Children and young adults react out of fear, he says. If they’re exposed to violence, they may act out in kind.
“I let them know that what they see is not necessarily the way that they have to be,” he said.
– Erin Jester