Fired up for change

Fired up for change

A good idea that actually took root several years ago at Garden Hills Elementary School continues to thrive.

I wrote two weeks ago about a “Gentleman’s Club” at the school intended to teach boys about manners, responsibility and giving back to the community.

It’s generated lots of feedback, with several readers and one local restaurant pitching in to help, and a new girls’ leadership group held its first meeting last week as well.

I also heard from a former Garden Hills parent, Ronald Rhone Jr., who told me about a similar mentoring program he launched at the school more than two years ago.

Rhone, who works at PNC Bank in Champaign, started working with third- through fifth-grade boys at the school in spring 2014. With former Principal Cheryl Camacho and other administrators, he designed a curriculum that emphasized respect, honesty, chivalry and goal-setting, choosing the name “Fearless Young Individuals,” or FYI.

He’d meet every week with about 15 boys, split into two groups, who needed a male influence in their lives. They’d talk over lunch about different subjects, then shoot hoops at recess. Rhone would meet individually with kids as needed or sometimes take them to sports practice after school.

Fifth-graders would often act as mentors to the other students, Rhone said, teaching them how to line up properly or serve as crossing guards.

“A lot of our mentoring was based on respect for themselves, proper attire, respect for women, a man and his word,” Rhone said.

His motto was “No Excuses: Excuses are the bricks that built a house for failure.”

The group met through the 2014-15 school year and beyond, with both parents and teachers telling Rhone he’d been able to make a difference with the boys in a short amount of time.

Garden Hills has since worked with local fraternities to expand that mentoring concept. Volunteer coordinator Jubal Croegaert said a dozen boys from third through fifth grade meet each week with Misty Teheran Bell, a Parkland teacher and alumnus of the Kappa Alpha Psi.

On two Wednesdays each month, boys in each grade level meet with their own leader to talk about issues and what it takes to be a responsible, successful African-American man, Croegaert said. Chris Fuller started this “Lunch Bunch” a year ago; fellow Omega Psi Phi alumni Shawn Hampton and Jonathan Westfield are the other two leaders.

Meanwhile, instructional specialist Melissa Kearns wanted to create similar opportunities for girls to feel a sense of community at the school.

She and three other teachers just started a new leadership academy called “Girls on Fire.” It uses a curriculum from the Ophelia Project, a national nonprofit group that helps build empowerment skills and teaches girls to work with their peers in positive ways, she said.

Like the other groups, Girls on Fire will include guest speakers and service-learning projects, so they can “take part in being a part of their community as well,” Kearns said.

The first meeting last week drew about 40 girls from third through fifth grade and focused on the qualities of friendship, why they are important and what happens when those values break down.
As with the Gentleman’s Club, they will dress up for the meetings, with teachers and parents already raising money to ensure every girl has a nice outfit to wear.

Several parents have stepped in to help, including a beautician who plans to talk to the girls about hairstyling and how to take care of themselves.

“We’ve had lots of offers of people willing to help,” said Kearns, who is working with teachers Christie Keliendo, Colleen Yambert and Valeri Warren.

On that note, the boys in the Gentleman’s Club got a big boost last week from Laurel and Randy Tucker of Champaign, who own 16 Arby’s restaurants in Champaign-Urbana, Danville, Bradley-Bourbonnais, Mahomet, Peoria and Iowa. They plan to supply beef sandwiches, salad and dessert for a lunch the boys will serve their parents on Dec. 20.

The Tuckers regularly support Cunningham Children’s Home and other youth programs and also help out the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. They read about the Gentleman’s Club on their way to Minneapolis to see family for Thanksgiving.

When they read that club organizer Austin Myers was hoping a restaurant could help with the dinner, “we just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it, we’re in,’” Laurel Tucker said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to possibly impact the markets we work in and be part of the community.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and famlies and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Education, People


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