Friday, May 24, 2013


Yesterday evening at the Georgia Dome, I had the privilege of seeing the lone senior in this year’s Coaching for Success program walk across the stage and claim his high school diploma. LaMontae graduated with honors, and will be attending Georgia State this fall.

I’ve been to a lot of graduation ceremonies over the years. They all seem to have in common that they’re not really occasions for speakers to make life-changing or controversial speeches. Survey the attendees afterward about the content of the valedictorian’s speech and you’d generally get responses ranging from “It was nice” to “Valedic-who?” The next time I see a proud parent or guardian of a soon-to-be grad pull out a pen and paper to take notes about the key points of a commencement address will be the first.

Graduation is, plain and simple, a night for a family to celebrate an important accomplishment by one of its members. The roll call portion of the program is my favorite part—a unique blend of gravitas and gaiety. Whether the assembled cheering section for each grad chooses to express their support with full-throated whoops and hollers or reserved golf claps, there’s something I will always enjoy about the whole experience of being in a crowd like that.

I sat beside Gordon last night. When LaMontae’s name was called, he vocalized an affirmation. I’m quite certain the sound didn’t carry from midway up section 130 behind the end zone to LaMontae’s ears on the 40-yard line, and I joked with Gordon that I had expected him to break out twin air horns and make a big scene. But neither he nor LaMontae’s mom needed air horns to demonstrate their support last night. They were there—just as they’ve been, just as they’ll continue to be.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know LaMontae through his involvement with Coaching for Success. I’ve enjoyed watching as Gordon has stimulated LaMontae’s interest in math and helped him navigate the process of applying for schools and scholarships.  I’ve enjoyed hearing about the pair’s exploits together outside the weekly group tutoring sessions (see the February 15 post in this blog for one of the more memorable ones). And I’m confident this young man has a bright future ahead of him.

We caught up with LaMontae after the ceremony and congratulated him on his achievement. He seemed ready to get out of cap and gown and move on to a small family celebration at his favorite restaurant, P.F. Chang. I said good-bye and watched as LaMontae and his party of supporters—his girlfriend, his brother, his mom, and Gordon—walked off together into the night.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Second Saturday

Last Saturday we re-instituted a YES!Atlanta tradition. For the first time in more than a year, we invited all Coaching for Success participants together for a group session. Mary Mitchell, one of YES!Atlanta’s co-founders and a recent addition to the board of directors, facilitated the session.

Mary insisted on students’ participation and engagement from the outset. Once everyone had stood in front of the group and announced their name, grade, and school, she told the teens the first order of business would be to read through and discuss a set of five basic ground rules for Second Saturday sessions.

Mary made it clear that she’d be seeking a volunteer to read each of the rules, and, anticipating that most of the teens would wait for someone else to step forward, promised the first volunteer the chance to read the shortest rule.

A quiet seventh-grader among a mostly high school-aged group, Mike would have topped my board as the odds-on favorite to resist participating the longest. But he quickly reminded me that I am a nonprofit executive, not a handicapper. Buoyed by Mary’s promise that the early bird would get off relatively easy, he practically jumped out of his seat to read rule 1: Be on time.

This rule was a good entry point for the morning’s conversation about the importance of keeping commitments. We had announced a start time of 10 a.m., but the last of the participants didn’t arrive until almost 10:30.

Mary had confided in me beforehand that the students would get a free pass—this time—on rule 1. Good thing. The way a few of our teens came in made me wonder how they make it to school early in the morning five days a week. My first glance at a particularly bleary-eyed girl reminded me of a teen truism once set out for me by a program participant: “There’s no such thing as a Saturday morning.”

It was slow going at first, as the rules of engagement were set and re-set. Mary had to remind students at nearly every exchange that she expected them to raise their hand to be acknowledged, stand while speaking, and acknowledge others’ contributions.

If you’ve spent much time with teens, you can probably imagine the non-verbal cues they were giving out to display their resistance to the format—loud sighs, rolling eyes, contorted posture, and a pace of movement more befitting residents at a senior center than students in senior high school.

The change started taking root maybe ten minutes into the session. One by one, as they reached the conclusion that Mary was going to stick to her guns, the teens began complying with the ground rules and genuinely engaging in the conversation. What started as one or two outliers quickly developed into a majority, and voilĂ —the beginnings of a mutually supportive peer group.

It’s a delicate seedling at this point, but I expect it’ll flourish with the right tending. That’s what Second Saturdays are for.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ice cream social

This past Monday, we offered the students at our newest tutoring site a treat to acknowledge them for their effort and consistent attendance this semester: an ice cream social. Students got to dress up their sundaes with a variety of toppings—cookies, candy bars, chopped nuts, whipped cream, chocolate sauce…even a cherry on top.

That’s how the evening ended, but it took some work to get there.

Larry is the Resident Services Director for the Villages at Carver community and the initiator of our sundae-making party. He’s been a great ally as we’ve gotten this new program site up and running in the past year. Recently, Larry has been a regular fixture at Monday night tutoring sessions. He’s built a rapport with the teens using his unique way of cutting up with them even while laying down the law.

A few weeks back, Larry and one of the young men at this site exchanged a few words about the importance of respect and making the most of opportunities. Things didn’t get overly heated between the two, but as an offshoot of that conversation, the young man (an every-week regular since January) didn’t attend the following Monday.

This week, he returned. Larry and I took him aside for a quick conversation in a side room. At first, his eyes were down and his guard up. He had muttered a few choice words on his way out the door last time, and this became the first topic of discussion. It took him a minute and a little bit of coaching to engage, but once he did, things started to take a turn for the better.

Larry made a few points about this being a critical moment to really take in some of life’s lessons about how to successfully interact with others. His tone was firm and his words direct, but they were followed by a sincere assurance that he cared for this young man and wanted him to be here.

I reminded the young man of a conversation we had in his home last December that concluded with my inviting him to join Coaching for Success, not because he was a bad guy or because he really needed someone to fix him and his
problems, but because he has such potential to make it in life.

We talked for a few minutes more, and once everything was “straight,” we rejoined the group and finished out a productive tutoring session.

Then came the ice cream social. It was a real pleasure to get to sit around the table with this group of young people, at ease and enjoying themselves. We’ve gotten to know one another pretty well since last fall, but there was something nice about being able to set the books aside and just share a treat.

I suppose that’s how it is sometimes—you come for tutoring (and maybe even a challenging conversation) and you get ice cream. It takes hard work and commitment to get to the payoff, but when you do, how sweet it is!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Take me out to the ballgame

I recently had an unexpected bonding opportunity with one of the young men in the Coaching for Success program. My chance came courtesy of Dan, a friend who offered up some Braves tickets he had gotten from work and was unable to use.

With a pair of the tickets I took Simeon, a ninth-grader who is currently waiting on a mentoring match, to the ballpark. Simeon plays catcher on his high school baseball team and is an avid student of the game. This was not his first trip to Turner Field, but he was still wide-eyed at the experience.  With his mother’s blessing, he insisted on staying to the very end, when I snapped the attached photo of him.

Throughout the evening, Simeon was strikingly gracious. I was detained at a meeting and didn’t get to pick him up until the game was already a few innings old. He waved off my apologies, saying he was just happy for the chance to go.

It’s been a little while since I last visited a Major League ballpark, and as we passed booth after booth staffed by concessionaires and souvenir vendors on the way to our seats, I found myself wondering how my two young daughters would have reacted had they been there. Given half a chance, I suspect they would have overloaded with cotton candy, popcorn, foam tomahawks, and the like before ever laying eyes on the diamond. Not Simeon, though. He was there to see a game, and he quietly and confidently took the lead navigating to our section.

Like Simeon, I love a good ballgame. For my money, America’s pastime is the best among the major sports as a backdrop for meandering but meaningful conversation.  As the game moved along steadily, we talked our way easily through a number of topics—cherished memories at the ballpark, favorite players, the relative strengths of each team’s lineup, how to hit an off-speed pitch, the duties of a catcher who’s not starting, the progress Simeon’s making toward pulling his grades up, his knack for talking his way out of trouble, plans for the summer, and so on.

All in all, it was a wonderful night. The weather was perfect, the good guys won 3-2, and, with a little coaching from Simeon, I got the chance to perfect my tomahawk chop. Most importantly, a young man got a tangible reinforcement of a message we consistently work to get across—that he’s valuable, and there are people in his life who want the best for him.

I told Dan afterwards how much I appreciated his sharing those tickets. To him it was a simple and natural gesture, but for Simeon—and for me, too—it really meant a lot. Dan has a lot of responsibilities at work and at home. He may not have an hour every week to devote to mentoring a young person, but he made a valuable contribution nonetheless.