Garden City Leaders Invest in the Decision-Making Skills of Fifth and Sixth Grade Boys
Around 2010, a group of Garden City, Kansas, adults recognized the need to help youth in their area.
“A handful of us came together and realized we needed to be part of the solution to help schools as well as parents who were struggling to raise the next generation,” said Reynaldo Mesa, a long-time Garden City entrepreneur, businessman and public servant, who in the past has served as a city commissioner, mayor and state legislator.
“We needed to get involved and quit complaining. Our community had a high teen-pregnancy rate, and a high dropout rate. Our kids were getting involved with the law and gangs, and they weren’t doing well in school. We wanted to do something to help.”
After talking to educational leaders, the group decided to start by focusing on boys in the fifth and sixth grades. “We recognized that was a critical age and one where we felt we could make the most impact,” Mesa said. “We just had no idea where that idea would take us next.”
They began building connections with this group of kids in the school setting. Mentors came into Bernadine Sitts and Charles O. Stones Intermediate schools to have lunch with the boy. From those relationships, an entire program grew based around helping boys learn to make healthy decisions.
Creating Servant Leaders
The former lunch program has now expanded into the Real Men Real Leaders (RMRL) Leadership Program, a year-long program that serves any boy of any background. During the school year, the program meets with boys a couple of days per week after school, and many stay involved year-round through volunteer and summer activities.Jonas Cruz (after-school program director), and Tim Sperry (program assistant) work with an active board of business, community and educational leaders to develop the curriculum, raise funds and expand RMRL’s reach.
RMRL recruits boys based on recommendations made by teachers, counselors, community members and parents who identify students who would benefit from the program.
They discuss hard topics — drugs, the legal system, making smart choices — and put them through a leadership curriculum to build the boys’ confidence and self-esteem so they can become future community leaders. Along the way, the group also does lots of fun stuff to build community, encourage appropriate behaviors and keep the boys coming back for more.
During the school year, Cruz and Sperry meet with the fifth graders weekly to work through a leadership curriculum based on earning eight challenge “coins” — similar to merit badges — to show they’ve completed lessons in citizenship, communication, family, leadership, literacy, organization, personal management and wellness.
Then in sixth grade, they bring all the boys together into one larger group and give them greater challenges to grow their leadership skills. For example, one group recently was challenged to plan (with minimal adult support) a community event. They set up a breakfast to honor law enforcement, found the location, decided on what food to serve, invited people to attend and served the meal.
The Garden City business community has stepped up to financially support the program. In return, the program teaches the boys the value of serving their community, with RMRL volunteering thousands of hours to community events and programs. Mesa said volunteering is vital to instilling a love for the community and a realization that you can’t be a leader without first serving others.
“Many of the boys think that a leader is just a president or CEO,” Mesa said. “We show them people can be leaders in any situation and at any given time at home, in school or in the community. To quote the Kansas Leadership Center, leadership isn’t a title, it’s an activity.”
The program teaches many skills that the boys can apply at school and in their future careers. For example, each boy is given opportunities to practice and build strong public speaking skills by sharing with adults regularly what they’ve learned through RMRL. They also learn by participating in special events such as a dinner held at the country club to teach dining etiquette and good manners.
All in all, the program works holistically due to a strong relationship with the Garden City School District USD 457. All parents of RMRL participants sign waivers that allow school officials to reach out to the program if one of the boys is struggling, either behaviorally or with their grades.
“This is not for us to come down on the boys when they’re not doing well. It’s about being able to go into the schools and encourage them, to be able to help get them back on track and help the teachers, counselors and parents. Everyone must be involved,” Mesa said. “They’re boys. They’re going to get in trouble. They’re going to make mistakes. When this happens, we go to the schools, meet with them, tell them their behavior is not what RMRL is about, and help them make the changes they need to make. In nearly every case, this approach works.”
A Vision of Expansion
In the future, Mesa wants the program to expand to keep boys involved longer and to include more career exploration opportunities with companies in southwest Kansas. This will be a critical part of helping the boys envision supporting themselves and their own families someday. Mesa said the program intends to use HirePaths content as part of their curriculum moving forward.
“So many of these boys aren’t ready for college or don’t have what it takes to make their dreams come true in college or professional sports, but there are many good, well-paying careers they could pursue if they were just aware they were out there. It’s critical that our program helps them explore their educational options or jobs they could do someday and what type of training these jobs will take,” Mesa said.
“HirePaths offers us videos, stories and resources we can use to introduce boys to different careers they can pursue without having to leave southwest Kansas. We also want to do more to teach the boys about financial literacy, so they make good decisions with their money.”
Mesa said many boys want to stay involved with the organization after sixth grade, so plans are in the works to help the program expand its curriculum and find new ways to keep the boys connected and engaged throughout their entire educational career. The board is trademarking the RMRL name and polishing up their curriculum so they can soon duplicate the program in other Kansas cities.
“It’s important for people to get involved with the children in their community. That’s what it takes. We can’t leave it up to the school district and others. So much is demanded of our teachers now,” Mesa said.
“We all make a lot of decisions each day — what to eat, what to wear, what to do, whether to goof off or go to work and so on. If we can create good habits at this critical point in their young lives, these boys will be better off for it. I want people to know that’s what Real Men Real Leaders is in the business of — helping these young boys make better decisions. It is our hope that we can take these lessons to other communities across the state.”
If you know a boy in the Garden City area who might be a good fit for the program, please reach out at (620) 315-4182 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at realmenrealleaders.com.
If your community would be interested in starting a similar program in your community, contact Mesa at email@example.com.
Check out RMRL graduate Dylan Martinez, the star of HirePath’s Cool Careers Plumber video!