Mekel Brown, Javandre’a Johnson, and Anterrio Sims will start college at Parkland next week, along with hundreds of fellow freshmen seeking certificates, degrees, and brighter futures. But unlike many of their peers, these scholarship recipients never thought college was in the cards.

Just two years ago, Brown, Johnson, and Sims were routinely skipping school, fighting, and frequently ended up suspended or expelled. And then, along with several other young men at Central and Centennial High Schools, the trio got involved with the Goal Getters program. 

“When I first got in the program, I just came from being expelled. I really didn’t have no vision for what I wanted to do,” Sims said. “I never would have thought I was going to get a full paid-for scholarship to college.”

Goal Getters is a two-year-old program supported by the City of Champaign, Champaign’s Unit 4 School District, and the Champaign Community Coalition. Its mission is to work with young men who are struggling at school, in the community, and at home. And as black students experience suspension and expulsion rates that are disproportionately high, and face academic achievement disparities when compared with their white peers, the program is mostly comprised of young black men. Sheldon Turner (pictured at left in top photo), who runs the program, estimates that 90% of his young scholars have had some interaction with law enforcement.

“These young men are going through things that some of us never really been through,” Turner said, although his upbringing in East St. Louis bore a certain resemblance. “The main thing is teaching these young men that they have a way out of their circumstances, out of trouble. Some of them have never been exposed to a better way; they’ve been locked into negative behaviors.”

Turner tries to meet the young men where they’re at, relating to them without judgment. He slowly earns their trust, then goes to work pouring in all the positivity he can, helping them understand themselves and their circumstances, and showing them they have options in life. Now, 90% of his young scholars are on track to graduate and be successful.

It started last summer, when Turner and his fellow mentors invited 21 boys to participate in an eight-week intensive summer program to learn life skills and discover their own potential. Enticing 14- to 17-year-olds to give up two evenings a week during summer vacation is no easy task. So Goal Getters paid them. If the boys met specified participation goals, completed reading and writing assignments, and generally stayed out of trouble, they could earn up to $600 at the end of the summer.

Photo by Lee V. Gaines from WILL website

“When I was first in the program, I ain’t gonna lie, I was thinking about the money. But then you start thinking it’s more than that. You start changing around and doing better and listening every time you come to the group,” Brown said.

The program continued through the school year, with Turner and school officials checking in on the boys on a daily basis, ensuring they were going to class, doing homework, and making positive choices. At the start of its second summer session, returning Goal Getters scholars were asked to serve as mentors for new recruits coming into the program. Each year, according to Turner’s plan, there will be more older students looking out for the younger ones.

The model could have a huge impact on local youth dealing with poverty and community trauma. Sims explains that a big reason he was getting in trouble before Goal Getters was an absence of positive role models.

“I think what leads it is the peers. If nine out of 10 of your friends – even five out of 10 – are into something, you’re going to do it too,” he said. “But I realized I ain’t want to be no follower.”

Johnson piped up, “I’m a straight leader, not a follower,” paraphrasing the Goal Getters pledge:

I am the hope and the future.
I am educated.
I know my identity.
I am a leader, not a follower.
I am responsible.
I will honor those that pave the way for my success.

On a recent Tuesday night, this year’s scholars gathered to celebrate the end of the summer session. They recited their pledge, ate a BBQ dinner, and received completion certificates and checks. They also listened to Aaron Ammons tell the story of how he found inspiration during hard times and turned his life around to become the first African American County Clerk in Champaign County.

“Credibility and integrity go hand in hand and they are invaluable no matter where, or who you are,” he said. “I want the young men of the Goal Getters program to see and follow the path that leads to the recognition and fulfillment of their potential. We all must expand what we know, in order to grow.”

Ammons is not the only community leader to take part in the program since its inception. In fact, it's clear the community is all in. Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen spearheaded a fundraising campaign with Champaign City Council members Alicia Beck and Vanna Pianfetti to cover the two-year Parkland scholarships for the three graduating seniors. She says it was an easy ask. 

“The seniors had stepped up and done the hard work. I felt like we needed to step up as a community and help them to be successful,” Feinen said. “People were incredibly generous when we told them the story of our Goal Getters.”

Goal Getters recently announced a new initiative to mentor younger students – at Edison Middle School and Booker T. Washington Elementary School. The move is one way Turner hopes to better serve young men in our community. He is also advocating for schools to re-test students for academic performance, mental health issues, IEPs, and 504 Plans as incoming freshmen.

“I think as early as elementary, these kids slip through the cracks. Somewhere along the line, the [individualized attention] falls off. I think if they don’t have that, they get stuck through high school,” Turner said. “We have to target some of the family issues too. There are a lot of bad situations in the home, that’s where it starts. All of that together is being missed by the time they get to 9th grade.”

That’s up to school boards, school districts, and parent advocates.

Photo from Mayor Diane Marlin's Facebook page

Meanwhile, across town, retired Urbana Police officer Preston James just finished up his first summer with the Self Made Kingz. Like Goal Getters, the program was named by its participants.

“The self-made part is, and these are their words, you dictate how you want to be viewed and how you act. Like, I can’t control you but I can control how I react to what you do. As for the ‘kingz’ part, they’re young kings, they gotta act like it. You’re not what other people may have labeled you as based on your past resume,” James said.

Like the Champaign program, Self Made Kingz is supported by the Coalition, the City of Urbana, and Urbana School District 116. It’s structured similarly, with a stipend, twice-weekly meetings in the summer, and a lot of face-time throughout the school year.

Because it’s only a few months old, the program can’t yet boast college-bound graduates. But James has had some profound moments with the young men, and is encouraged by their growth in such a short time.

“We asked them at the very beginning, ‘What is your worth?’ None of them could tell me. We asked, ‘Are you worth more than those Air Force 1s on your feet?’ A couple of them paused. Air Force 1s are worth about $100,” he said. Now, they’re starting to realize their worth and their potential.

Like Turner, James became a constant voice in the boys’ ears. So much so that he expected them to want to distance themselves once school starts. But no, the young men voted to continue meeting twice a week year-round. One suggested the group meet daily.

James also emphasizes the importance of community support and involvement.

“Our community needs to open our arms to these kids and be rocks for them. Even if they bounce off of us, we need to stand strong and say we’re here. We need to change the way we think and approach them where they’re at, not where we think they’re supposed to be,” he said. “Everybody they have contact with needs to be more accepting of them. Understand they’re going to make mistakes. We just want them to try hard to be a better them.”

To donate to Goal Getters, go to the CU Schools Foundation. To donate to or collaborate with the Self Made Kingz program, contact Preston James at pmjames@urbanaillinois.us.

Photos by Lauren Quinn expect where noted