Mentors of Manhood Help Youth Catch Dreams

Xavier Canty wants to experience the feeling of saving someone’s life. Tremaine Williams, who wrestles, wishes to repay all the physical therapists who repaired his injuries. And Delvon Shepherd, a 200-pound middle linebacker, escapes by writing stories and poetry.

In Corcoran High School, there are plenty of students like these three. Some want to be teachers. Others want their own business. Some are just searching for a route to college.

Future firefighters, psychiatrists and doctors amble in the school’s halls every day. Alton Hicks sees this, and he is trying to urge them in the right direction.

“In order to make change, it takes work,” the school’s vice president said. “If you want to change your environment, you have to put in some time. Most of them get it.”

Canty, Williams and Shepherd all answer to Hicks. The long time Syracuse resident runs an after-school program called Mentors of Manhood. Here, students learn about business attire, Robert’s Rules of Order, what Jay-Z wears when he’s making business decisions.

Mentors of Manhood started at Corcoran eight years ago through Hicks’ fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Inc. The fraternity runs the program all over the east coast and in the major cities of New York: Rochester, Buffalo and the Big Apple. In 2006, when Hicks transferred to Corcoran from being the dean of students at Nottingham High School, he continued what his fraternity started.

“The whole purpose is leadership skills. I judge that by the activities (we do),” Hicks said. “It is kind of regimented that they must put on certain programs. They have to write proposals.”

Two years ago, Hicks watched his group organize a program they named “Get Fresh Friday.” Instead of dark T-shirts and Air Jordan sneakers, everyone strolled into school in slacks and button-ups. Students felt what it was like going to a job interview.

But, it was Canty, Williams and Shepherd’s first event. And it showed.

“The first one we did was good, but it was terrible,” said Hicks, a Nottingham graduate. “It was good because all of the kids dressed up. But the backlash was that they took all these pictures and didn’t raise any money. It was supposed to be a fundraiser. I didn’t say anything because I let them figure out what was going on.”

No one in the program knew who was collecting the money or passing out the pictures that were sold. Instead of raising a couple hundred dollars, they came away with $20. Still, it was a starting point.

“When we dressed up in our business attire, (other students) asked ‘Old man, why are you in your tie?’ ” said Canty, a senior. “We are just ready. We are getting ready for our trials and tribulations that are ahead. Most of the time, I just tell them I am growing. I am learning. This is how I do it.”

Not only were other students intrigued, but also teachers were impressed. The Van Heusen dress shirts brought more attention and interaction in class by the students. The atmosphere in the entire building was vastly less casual.

After that, the “Get Fresh Friday” program soon put on a best-dressed competition for the entire school.

“(The kids in the program) didn’t realize what affect they could have on the building,” Hicks said. “The reason it was so good was because you have a Friday where there are all these kids coming to school in a shirt and tie. Girls are dressed in slacks. They saw that and said, ‘Wow. I have this effect on people. I created this.’ They felt empowered.”

Mentors of Manhood went on to integrate a five-day “Success Week.” Each day was dedicated to different aspects of life after high school. One day, students learned how to tie ties. On another, they learned interview etiquette. For Williams, the events forced him to change.

“I was shy and soft-spoken (before joining Mentors of Manhood),” the 17-year-old senior said. “In the program, I had to speak out loud. It made me really talk about things. Normally, I keep to myself and stay quiet. I would always let other people speak and I would just be there. Now, I am the center of attention.

“In the future, when you speak up, people know you are listening. You can give advice. If you don’t speak up, no one will know about you.”

Hicks insists he only wants to bring the teenagers to the edge. He wants them to swim on their own. Once they learn and build a foundation for future years, his job will be obsolete. Hicks points out that Canty, when he learned how to tie ties, started to Google the best ways to tie them. Then, he moved on to bow ties. Canty became the resident tie-expert.

And Hicks doesn’t want his pupils to stop there. He matches men from his own fraternity with students interested in similar careers. He wants them modeling successful black men other than Lil’ Wayne or LeBron James.

“The bigger piece is finding someone they can relate to who isn’t dribbling a ball or on stage rapping,” he said. “I think the kids need to see regular people who have been successful through education. I don’t think the kids see that too often. They don’t have positive male role models in their house, so we try to become that. I try to give them someone they can relate to who is doing what they want to do so they can make a connection.”

Still, the largest obstacle the program has faced with new members is fear.

“(Teenagers) are scared to try new stuff so they stick with what they know,” Hicks said. “It is very difficult to get them out of that mode, so I try different things. A lot of kids are scared to try something new. Then adding in more work (just makes it harder).”

In a city where every public school is being watched for academic progress by the state’s school district, in a school that has been accused of falsifying graduation rates, the Mentors of Manhood program is doing its part to send teens to college.

“Some kids come one time and see what’s going on and say, ‘We have to work?’ ” Hicks said. “Yeah, that’s part of life. Some kids aren’t motivated to do extra stuff outside of themselves because they are so used to things just being given to them. When you work in groups like this, you aren’t really reaping any financial benefits. The only benefit they are getting is inside.”

Shepherd lives on the north side, but makes the trip to Corcoran every day to avoid finding trouble with his neighborhood friends. He also takes advanced classes to earn the school’s International Baccalaureate diploma. Corcoran is the only school in Syracuse offering the I.B. classes.

Shepherd recognizes Mentors of Manhood is improving his chances of meeting his future aspirations.

“Sometimes, chasing that dream might lead you to another one,” Shepherd said. “You never know what could happen.

“All you have to do is chase a dream. And if you chase that dream, you will catch it.”