Editor's note:This is the fourth in a series of stories featuring the 25 agencies that will be receiving money from the Finney County United Way in 2014.
By SCOTT AUST
Formed about five years ago, Real Men, Real Leaders is a nonprofit organization comprised of a group of men who mentor fifth- and sixth-grade boys, with the goal of instilling values and encouraging them to become leaders in school, home and at church.
"We're there to listen to them, but we're also there to challenge them," board member Tim Cruz said. "We're just trying to make a difference in these kids' lives."
There are currently 12 board members and about 15 boys in the program. They meet on Tuesdays after school at Trinity Lutheran Church. Students are picked up after school, provided a healthy snack, and then experience a variety of activities.
"We have different community leaders come in and talk to the boys about growing up in Garden City, trying to encourage kids that there's more to do in the world than they see or hear about," Cruz said.
Another week, they may go on a field trip to go bowling or fishing and similar activities. Once a month, each boy gives a presentation on what's important in their lives or families.
"Last Christmas time, we bought them all disposable cameras and wanted them to take pictures of what Christmas meant to them. When they got back in January, we developed the film and they made posters," he said.
Members try to engage kids, encourage them to not be shy about public speaking. The group also gets outside and engages in physical activity once a month.
This past summer, Real Men, Real Leaders also offered a summer wellness program for the first time.
"It's about mentoring the kids, but it's also about learning how to make healthy choices — not only fitness, but keeping away from drugs, alcohol and gangs," Cruz said.
The Finney County United Way provided the group a $2,000 community impact grant this year. Next year, the United Way will provide up to $8,000.
Those funds help the organization with offering healthy meals and snacks, field trips and transportation, and next year will help establish a larger summer wellness program and other opportunities for students.
"Without those funds, we wouldn't be able to do a lot of things," Cruz said. "We're very thankful for United Way. The need is very great, and the dollars we get from United Way are very helpful."
Cruz said Real Men, Real Leaders also receives funding through the Finnup Foundation. But the United Way funding represents about 20 percent of its available funds.
Other board members got involved out of a desire to make a difference in young people's lives, and to provide positive role models to local youth.
Sgt. Steve Martinez, crime prevention deputy with the Finney County Sheriff's Office and a Real Men, Real Leaders board member, said working with the kids has helped show them that law enforcement officers are not people to be feared.
For Martinez, the best thing about interacting with students is that they are happy to see him.
"You go to the program, to the Tuesday classes, and they like seeing you. Especially me being a law enforcement officer, most people don't necessarily care for law enforcement too much," he said. "They're seeing law enforcement in a positive light. I try to get across to them that our main focus is to help people and prevent them from getting into trouble or getting hurt."
Martinez said the group is so new, it's a little too soon to measure results. But just in talking to teachers, he believes the mentoring is having an impact.
"They say they've seen a change in some of the kids, that it's really helped," Martinez said. "They're really on board with the program, just based on what they've witnessed."
Board member Phil Escareno said he was approached by Cruz and Dennis Mesa about the program, and he agreed a need existed for a mentoring program for young Hispanic boys to help them learn to make good decisions.
Escareno coached high school wrestling for many years and felt he had something to offer. He's glad he joined.
"So far, I've enjoyed the heck out of it," he said. "It's been a learning experience for me. It's been a very good experience."
Real Men, Real Leaders was formed five years ago but has only been working in schools the past three years. Cruz said the first couple of years were spent getting organized, attaining nonprofit status and writing grant proposals.
As Hispanic leaders, Cruz said board members all saw kids in trouble and wanted to step up and help. But the organization will try to help anyone, regardless of race.
"These are all good kids. We just try to send the message that there's more to life than getting into trouble, drugs and alcohol, having babies at a young age," he said. "We feel it's important to help all kids."
In the future, the group hopes to organize a program for fifth- and sixth-grade girls, in addition to expanding to allow more kids to be part of the group.
The local United Way's annual campaign goal is $560,000, which is $10,000 more than last year.
The 25 partner agencies for the 2014 campaign include:
Miles of Smiles; Real Men, Real Leaders; Russell Child Development Center; Santa Fe Trail Council - Boy Scouts of America; Seeds of Hope Jail Ministry; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association; Building Blocks Project through Russell Child Development Center; Spirit of the Plains — CASA, Inc.; St. Catherine Hospital — Lactation Program; United Methodist Mexican - American Ministries; The Salvation Army; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Garden City Recreation Commission — Playground Program; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney & Kearny Counties; Catholic Social Service; Circles of Hope; Community Day Care Center, Inc.; Family Crisis Services, Inc.; Finney County Retired Senior Volunteer Program; Garden City Area Chapter of the American Red Cross; Garden City Family YMCA; Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland; Habitat for Humanity; Kansas Children's Service League; Meals on Wheels.