A few weeks ago, Craig McClain went to a middle-school graduation in Spring Valley to cheer on a 13-year-old who’s going into high school. As far as McClain could tell, no one else was there to support him.
That’s not surprising. The boy has been through 13 foster homes and has had a hard time making connections because he’s always on the move.
But now he has friends and mentors thanks to the nonprofit Boys to Men Mentoring Network and its outreach to troubled teens.
“Just a year ago, there was no way he’d graduate from eighth grade,” McClain, the executive director of Boys to Men, said. “He was heading to prison or maybe a drug overdose.”
So much has changed in so little time. Now, the boy is opening up about his life and seems to be heading down a better road.
McClain co-founded Boys to Men in 1996 after confronting his own directionless past and realizing how many boys grow up without any role models.
“We were shocked by how many boys grow up without dads and how difficult that was for them as teenagers to figure out how to be a man without anybody showing them,” he said.
Boys to Men has helped more than 6,000 boys worldwide, including 1,500 to 1,800 in San Diego, and now has chapters around the world. In 2009, the program began working with local public schools that recommend boys to take part in weekly mentor meetings, weekend mountain adventures and special events.
Some of the mentors aren’t much older than the boys in the program. Recent high school graduate Jose Garcia, for instance, returns to the Boys to Men program on weekends to work with middle school students. Before he joined the program himself several years ago, Garcia had been a gang member in Spring Valley who’d “been taught to hate,” McClain said.
“He brings experiences that these boys can relate to,” he said. “He was there just two years ago. They listen to him because if they’re in a gang, they know he was in a gang. If they were doing bad in school, they know he was doing bad in school. It adds a whole new element of mentoring.”
The mentors at Boys to Men are firmly committed to not tell boys how to live their live, but instead offer them insight into the choices they make.
“We tell them what worked in our lives and what didn’t,” McClain said. “And we ask them what they’d like to do. Maybe they want to be a pro football player. Will they get there if they’re smoking weed, getting thrown out of school and stealing cars?”
This approach seems to be working wonders for the 13-year-old boy from Spring Valley. Like so many foster kids, “he’s looking for somebody who cares, somebody who will listen to him, someone who’s not paid to take care of him,” McClain said.
Throughout the past two years, mentors have watched the boy grow and learn how to control his anger and his mouth.
“He’s still not out of the woods yet,” McClain said. “But he knows he’s got a group of people who care about him, and he knows what gets him in trouble. He’s dealing with life one day at a time.”