May 29, 2013

A Creative, Community-Based Program for Developing Good Men, Engaged Boys, and Strong Neighborhoods

I’m always on the lookout for interesting and innovative programs in which men show up for young males. The Better Housing Coalition initiative at the Winchester Greens community in Richmond, VA, is a great example and has some very creative elements. It's a program that supports young males, enhances men’s lives, enriches an up and coming neighborhood, and has a corporate sponsor! That is a great mix of elements for changing lots of people's lives and building strong communities!

Boys To Men of Richmond Virginia (BTM-VA) is an organization that has been in the business of initiating young men on Rite of Passage Adventure weekends for a long time. The graduates of those weekends are called Journeymen or J-Men. After their weekend, the J-Men get ongoing support with group mentoring, fun outings, and support group circles where boys and men sit and have honest conversations about the challenges and victories in their lives.

After one of their passage weekends, the mother of a J-Man asked BTM-VA if they would offer their services for her son and other boys at a local community center in her neighborhood. That request launched a collaborative pilot program that might be duplicated in other communities. Here is part of the conversation I had with BTM-VA’s Executive Director, Steve Martin, to learn more about how this program works.

Earl: I'm really excited to hear about your Winchester Greens initiative with collaborative partners I've not seen working together before. Will you tell us more about the program and how it all came about?

Steve: After a call from a J-Man’s mom, I was put in contact with Nina Williams. She is Social Services Director for the Winchester Greens Community. This community is one of many being developed by the Better Housing Coalition, a local group in the business of stabilizing “emerging” neighborhoods by offering people access to affordable home ownership.

We developed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Better Housing Coalition and Winchester Greens, and then Nina helped us identify some 12-17 year-old young guys who might be a fit. We wrote a letter to the candidates and their parents describing our programs, which Nina sent out, inviting them to an orientation meeting.

Earl: I’m guessing it was pretty important to have an on-site champion like Nina to help get the boys and the parents to attend.

Steve: Yes, Nina was great, and a big part of the success of the launch. For a first time pilot, we really needed an intermediary between us and the community. At the orientation meeting, we provided food and beverages and then did a short presentation. We introduced ourselves, shared our vision for the program, and then invited guys to sign up. We had the parents right there to sign the needed waivers, and out of that evening, we got enough guys to launch a pilot.

Earl: So what did the program look like once launched?

Steve: Our program design is to only meet when school is in session. We started last October and we’ll continue through the first week of June (2013). We began with a few of our (background checked) men and a J-Man or two sitting in weekly, one-hour circles with the Winchester Greens boys. The 6 PM afternoon time slot made it easy for our men and the boys to attend. We also invited the Winchester Greens guys to join in on our monthly BTM-VA “out events.” That’s when we do something fun in the community, like rock climbing, white water rafting, or visiting a theme park.

Earl: That is a similar approach to other programs I’m aware of. It’s a nice mix of play and group mentoring at the "out" events, and then straight talk with men and peers in the support circles. How did the Winchester Greens guys take to your program?

Steve: Pretty well. We have developed a core of between 4-6 young guys and have others flying by to check us out. Many of these guys live with unstable home lives so there is always some moving away and new guys showing up. What was really clear is the core 4-6 boys really get a lot from our meetings.

Earl: I understand you also included your core Winchester Greens guys in the BTM-VA Rite of Passage Adventure Weekend this past April.

Steve: Yes, it was really a highlight for these young men. To make that work, we had another meeting with the parents and boys prior to the weekend to help the parents understand the passage experience and to make sure the boys were really committed. We wound up with 4 Winchester Greens boys out of a total of 19 initiates on the weekend. As always, the weekend went great and was a fun and moving experience for the new Winchester Greens J-Men.

Earl: One of the unique aspects of this program is that you had a corporate sponsor underwriting the involvement of your Winchester Greens guys. What a wonderful public-private partnership for both community enrichment and even violence prevention. How did the sponsorship come about?

Steve: That was done by the Better Housing Coalition. They got a grant from Capital One that covered all the expenses for our circles, a years’ worth of "out events," and for their tuition for the Right of Passage Adventure (ROPA).

Earl: Did Capital One have any special criteria you had to meet?

Steve: Not really. We had already been in process with the Winchester Greens program for 6 months when we applied for the grant. I think the funders saw an established organization of good men who were consistently showing up for boys. We had already been doing the Winchester Greens program without outside funding so our commitment to these boys was pretty obvious. To help with attracting future sponsors, there was some data gathered during the program with the help of a college intern. In her research, she identified improvements in the boy's grades and in the guy’s general attitude. There was also a reduction of in-school suspensions.

Earl: Will you continue with the Winchester Greens site-based program?

Steve: This is just what I and the men of BTM-VA do! We’ll continue to show up, wherever we can, with sponsors or not, in order to support young men. After a meal a couple weeks ago, I asked the new Winchester Greens J-Men what they thought of the ROPA. Remember, these are guys who are normally pretty well shielded. Almost in unison they said, “Ya know, 5 minutes after we left the ROPA, we all knew we wanted to go back . . . and not ever leave!” That was one pretty incredible truth statement from all of them.

That’s what we do, create safe places where these young men can be real, get a sense for their gifts, and have their potential seen and honored. Along the way they are picking up a new definition of manhood. I don’t know about all our men, but speaking for myself, I love this work. I love seeing young men change for the better, and it just makes me a better man. How can you not like that?

For more information about this program, you can contact Steve Martin at 804-615-7823, or by email at

If you have an interest in doing support circles or passage experiences for the young men in your neighborhood, religious community, or school, send me and email and I'll help you get started.

You can be sure the boys around you are waiting for you to act.

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