ATHENS, Ga. – Reginald Willis and a group of Barnett Shoals Elementary School kids arrived in Atlanta in early May to tour the World of Coca-Cola, and then the Civil and Human Rights Museum.
The day of adventure was marked with fun and life lessons for the group of boys who are part of the Willis’ Boys to Men program. And it was one of the most memorable moments for Jaden Jackson, a fifth-grade student at Barnett Shoals who has been with the program for three years.
“It taught me a lot of stuff about how Black people back then changed our lives now,” he recalled of his trip to the Civil and Human Rights Museum.
The balance of education and entertainment is a marked trait of the Boys to Men program at Barnett Shoals, which serves third through fifth graders.
Willis, a receptionist at Barnett Shoals, said he started the program six years ago with the hope of giving boys the skills needed to become productive men in society.
“I felt like we needed to do more,” said Willis, who has worked in the Clarke-County School District for 28 years. “Just seeing in the community how the kids were going, as some folks say, astray. I just felt this was something we had to do at a younger age. ”
After talking with the school’s principal he was able to start the program. Willis said the core principles are respect, responsibility, and accountability, lessons he said he’s drawn from his own church upbringing.
“You know the golden rule: do unto others as you’ll have others do unto you,” he said. “Treat people how you want to be treated.”
The program starts every fall and runs until the end of the school year. Notifications are sent out to parents at the beginning of the school year, and the program is free to those who commit to enrolling their kids, Willis said.
Students come together after school where they engage in a range of activities, from learning how to set a table, to doing homework and solving word problems. The boys dress up in shirts, ties, and dress shoes, as a part of learning discipline and personal responsibility.
Ayden Stephens, a fourth grade student at Barnett Shoals, spoke fondly of the lessons he’s learned through being in the program for the last two years.
“I have learned how to be more accountable, how to be more respectful to other people, and how to be more responsible with my actions,” he said. “I’ve also learned how to set a dinner table. So now every Sunday, or whenever we eat dinner, I help my family set the table. ”
One of his favorite lessons was public speaking. Learning how to speak in front of his peers helped him greatly in a recent school play called “Hawaiian Beach Party,” he said.
“I got a lot of compliments because I was amazing, I was into it, and I was feeling it,” Stephens said. “Boys to Men helped me with public speaking so I wasn’t nervous at all.”
The program has grown over the years, though it experienced a slight dip during COVID-19, according to Brian Smith, a behavior interventionist at Barnett Shoals who assists in the program.
“It makes a difference,” Smith said. “These kids know that when you’re in Boys to Men there is a standard you have to abide by.”
Smith said the program looks to raise responsible men who will leave their own mark on society.
“There’s a doctor in there, there’s a lawyer in there, maybe a president,” he said. “There’s somebody who’s going to make society better tomorrow by doing what they’re doing today.”
Kenneth Davis, an adaptable paraprofessional at Barnett Shoals who assists with the program, said it was important for the students to also have a model of what it means to be a young man.
“I think setting that model, and them actually seeing that model in action because we are employees of the school is important,” Davis said. “So not only is it something we’re teaching and talking about, but you can see it every day. So it’s a universal thing they’re seeing in their time here at school. ”
Willis said though he intended for the program to focus on elementary school kids, he hopes to see similar programs carry over into middle school and high school.
“It’s not taking the place of the father in the home, or parenting, it’s just giving that extra support to what parents are already doing,” he said.