Mentoring at-risk youths is difficult enough in normal times. There has been little normalcy in 2020.
Darrell Thompson, who spent five seasons as a running back and special-teams ace with the Green Bay Packers, knows that from personal experience.
Thompson is the president of Bolder Options, established in 1993 as “a response to a community needs assessment that determined there was an urgent need for mentoring programs in the Twin Cities.” The organization has since expanded from Minneapolis to other Minnesota areas and has been recognized as an expert partner in mentoring by Mentor Minnesota and the National Mentoring Partnership.
“We've been able to grow it with more people and we are serving three different cities,” says Thompson, who began his community service back in the 1980s while at the University of Minnesota. "It's been way more than I ever envisioned. This is my 25th year with the organization and it's far more than I ever planned on. I know there is a ripple effect from what we are doing, I get calls from Maine and Texas and Florida from kids who graduated from the program.
“We are trying to introduce kids to doing homework and to literacy and embedding those tools in our program year to year. The bond is built like with a favorite coach or teacher, and they stick with us."
The Minneapolis community was rocked by the death of George Floyd in May, and Thompson saw firsthand the turmoil on the streets — and the need to be there for youngsters. Including family.
“It was one block away from our headquarters where there were people throwing things and breaking glass. Scary,” Thompson said.
“To see what was going on in our city, the unrest, and for the kids to communicate with our mentors, it was very valuable for them. And it was traumatic, not something we have had to deal with in our lifetime.”
Traumatic for Thompson because he and his sons and other athletes from local schools had marched in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. When a truck driver drove into a large crowd of protesters on a bridge, Thompson's son, a basketball player at Indiana, was there.
“They were 20 to 25 feet away,” Thompson recalls. “My son, he was shivering and was traumatized by that, saying, `Why do people hate me because I am black?' I don’t have the answer, and I asked my father, and he asked his father the same question.”
Thompson's experience as a mentor helped in that situation. He recognizes it's not only the younger boys and girls who need that kind of support and encouragement.
“The problem that's the most challenging, even before COVID, is young people having a positive adult role model in their life,” he says. "Many of our kids don't have that, someone to listen to them, and I feel we could solve a lot of problems if we listened more and talk less.
“These kids don’t have anyone they can ask about simple ideas such as trying to apply for a job down the street. Things I have taken for granted, frankly. It's a lack of connectivity because our kids don't have some of the fundamental things or support at home."
Bolder Options, which has a strong partnership with the YMCA, is trying to give those opportunities to the 1,000 or so youngsters in the program, with an almost even split of boys and girls.
“Mentoring has not changed a lot, but it's become more structured,” Thompson explains. “We are a one year to a lifetime program. When I first started, kids' programs ran three months and then we'd have burgers together and they graduated and got a paper. Now we go one year, there are some kids who get scholarships through out partnerships. We still set goals, physical and education goals, and goals they set on their own. It is just easier now than 27 years ago, people have gravitated to it.”
That has happened through references by social workers and primary schools, and perhaps from siblings who have gone through the program. Sometimes the parents or caretaker will encourage the youngsters to join Bolder Options.
"It’s become that connection with the community,” Thompson says, pride evident in his voice.
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