Mentorship into manhood: Conn College student launches partnership with Boys & Girls Club
New London ― Forty-nine 6- to 12-year-olds from the New London Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club celebrated a semester of mentorship and community development with Connecticut College’s Men of Color Alliance (MOCA) on campus earlier this month.
The students decorated holiday cookies and said their goodbyes to the Conn students for the year. They’re part of a new program called Pathway to Manhood, which aims to mentor young boys of color in the New London community, teaching them the values of manhood and understanding their identities.
Mentorship for young men is important right now as the Survey Center on American Life has found that only 1 in 5 men said they received emotional support from a friend in the past week, compared to 2 in 5 women.
The Pathway to Manhood program aims to tackle this statistic. The program helps boys understand themselves and how to talk to other men about matters going on in their lives.
It’s a critical effort, as male loneliness continues to impact boys and men throughout the nation. The number of men who reported to have no close relationships has skyrocketed from 3% in 1995 to 15% in 2021, according to the Survey Center on American Life.
Providing boys of color an opportunity to grow alongside each other, while receiving support from college-aged men of color is a step to changing that reality. But it takes time and attention to instill trust in kids, so they feel comfortable opening up, said Stivenson Jean-Louis, a Conn student who founded Pathway to Manhood.
“If you don't show yourself or try to get to know them, and you just come and try to teach a program to them, they'll be like, ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’ And it feels like they’re kind of attacking you but that's because they're not comfortable with you yet,” said Jean-Louis.
Jean-Louis, 22, came up with the partnership almost two years ago. Members from MOCA commit two days a week to supporting and mentoring the boys.
Graduating in May, Jean-Louis is studying psychology with a minor in finance at the college. His extensive leadership in MOCA, alongside being a scholar for the Holleran Center for Community Action, an organization at the college dedicated to local community engagement and advocacy, made him the right fit to pilot the program.
“We're so blessed by what Stivenson has done and what we're hoping will continue after he does leave,” said GiGi Gonzales-Cottrell, a captain of the Salvation Army and director of the local Boys and Girls program.
Jean-Louis’ affable and encouraging spirit is contagious to anyone around him. After gathering the students’ attention by doing a series of partially successful clap exercises, he thanked the kids for a wonderful semester before handing them cookies to decorate.
Getting students to participate in programs can be challenging at first, but because Jean-Louis and MOCA make time to visit the club over 10 hours a week, they’re able to build trust that allows the boys to open up. The results have been empowering.
“Because I have built a connection with them outside just activity, outside of mentorship, I'm able to connect with them more. I'm able to understand, ‘OK, this is how Alexis feels when he's angry or when he needs space,’” he said.
Jonathan Dayan, 22, a senior studying economics with a finance minor and in MOCA leadership. knew the program was an initiative he wanted to be a part of.
Growing up in Chicago, Dayan received after-school guidance and mentorship from the Boys & Girls Club. Now, he has an opportunity to give back and ensure kids have the same encouragement in the New London community.
“They're so smart. They have so much potential and you really see the light in their eyes,” Dayan said.
Each student has a journal, or “passport to manhood,” which they are instructed to reflect in after each session. This passport is used to measure the growth in the boys and see what needs more attention.
Sessions that carried profound impact have focused on identity and self-worth. Jean-Lewis has seen students become more aware and proud of who they are, along with their values, like caring for family and friends. Jean-Louis mentioned how one student over time was able to understand more complex topics, like self-esteem and breaking down stereotypes.
“Isaac was able to understand and tell me the definition of stereotype, what self-esteem is, what day it is. You can see that throughout his writing [and] throughout the other kids’ writing as well, what went into their thought process. So just being able to have a conversation with them and to express themselves, what they’re feeling and how they're coming up with these ideas [is] definitely the improvement that we're seeing when we connect with them,” Jean-Louis said.
Jean-Louis and MOCA have already inspired some older boys in the cohort to give back when they grow up, as well. Jahki Burns, 12, aspires to be an NBA player. Burns said that when he grows up, he seeks to help bring up the next generation with mentorship as well.
The partnership between the college and the Boys & Girls Club will continue into the Spring. MOCA and the college are confident this effort will continue, even after Jean-Louis graduates, continuing his legacy project for years to come.
“You can change a life by mere presence,” Gonzales-Cottrell said.
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