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Speaking their language: Will Green of Mentoring Positives is a role model for Madison kids

Credit:Sharon Vanorny

I'm sitting in the stands in the gym at the Salvation Army Community Center in Madison's Darbo-Worthington neighborhood, watching a bunch of teenage boys play a game of 21. This scene could be taking place in any of a million gyms across America.

Then something less common happens. Their coach-mentor, Will Green, calls the kids off the court and into the bleachers for a conversation. But the talk isn't about the finer points of setting picks and boxing out on rebounds. The playbook here is about critical life skills, like how to deal with adversity and take responsibility for your actions.

Green is the founder and executive director of Mentoring Positives, a referral-based mentoring program that serves families in and around Dane County. Mentoring Positives works with youth both individually and in groups, tailoring services to each kid's needs. Since last year, Green has also been the director of the Salvation Army Community Center in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood on Madison's east side.

By day, Green heads up the Salvation Army's after-school and summer camp programs at the community center, which serve kids in kindergarten through fifth grade with a curriculum focused on literacy. After hours, wearing his Mentoring Positives hat, he works with young people who have been sent to him by a social worker or case manager, along with another batch of kids who participate just because they like the program. The goal is to break the cycle that lands so many children of color behind bars or mired in permanent poverty.

Mentoring Positives' tag line is the somewhat cryptic "The hook is the key." Its meaning becomes clear when you see Green in action with a group of middle or high school-age boys.

The hook, for the vast majority of the agency's kids, is basketball. The Salvation Army Community Center has a really nice gym, so it's easy to see why they don't mind showing up when basketball is the main activity on the agenda. The sport also gives Green some instant credibility with the kids. The guy's got game; at age 42, he can still crush these tykes on the court.

A casual observer would be hard-pressed to distinguish the gathering I attended from an ordinary rec league practice. But there's a key difference: Before they hit the court, the kids have to sit through a group discussion covering a topic relevant to the challenges most of them face.

On this night, Green's right hand, Dionte Prewitt, is leading a conversation about black pioneers in sports -- Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and, the one not everybody knew about already, Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in the NBA. The ingenuity of the approach quickly becomes apparent. What starts as sports talk quickly morphs into a dialogue about the courage it takes to break through barriers, particularly the kinds of barriers arising from the judgment of others.

Most of these kids have had their expectations lowered by a lifetime of being told they can't succeed based on how they look or where they come from. This conversation is aimed at getting them to think bigger.

Green and Prewitt are clearly onto something. The group is fully plugged in to the discussion. Every question is met with several raised hands, and the conversation never sags.

Have ball, will travel

Green's ability to connect with young people living in low-income, single-parent households is rooted in shared experience. He grew up in Gary, Ind., the oldest of three brothers with three different fathers.

His mother was 14 when he was born. He never knew his own dad, though just last year he learned his father's identity from an aunt. Green's mother worked hard as a certified nursing assistant to hold things together for the family, but there were times when she couldn't pay the utility bills and had to haul the boys off to live with their grandmother.

"There weren't a lot of dads in the scene," notes Green. "There were boyfriends my mom had, but nobody I really connected with as a father figure."

The closest was his basketball mentor, Carl Traicoff, the varsity coach at Calumet High School in Gary, where Green was a star player. Traicoff is something of a coaching legend in basketball-crazy Indiana. In addition to coaching the high school team, he ran a free summer basketball camp. Kids who made it to camp every day got their gym-shoe fee waived. With money tight at home, Green made sure not to miss a day of camp.

Green credits Traicoff with helping shape him both on and off the court. He taught the kids how to play as a team, not just a collection of skilled individuals. That came as a shock to some of the predominantly white teams Calumet faced downstate, who thought black ballers were all freelancers. But more important, Traicoff connected those basketball lessons -- such as the importance of constant effort and working collaboratively -- to life in general.

Basketball helped keep Green out of trouble, and he liked the fact that his mother didn't have to worry about his whereabouts. She knew that if he wasn't home, he was probably in the gym.

Basketball was also Green's ticket out of Gary. After attending Kankakee Community College, about an hour south of Chicago, on a basketball scholarship for two years, he was recruited to transfer to UW-Eau Claire. He excelled on the court there as well and became a well-known figure on campus.

As his college basketball career wound down, Green began to focus increasingly on the other passion he had developed: working with troubled youth. He took a job working with sex offenders at Eau Claire Academy, a residential treatment facility for youth with a variety of social, psychological and alcohol and other drug-abuse (AODA) issues.

It didn't take long for others at the facility to recognize that Green had a knack for connecting with teenage boys and helping them work through their problems. He quickly worked his way up to a supervisory position, dealing with over 200 kids ages 12 to 16 with issues ranging from mental health to gang involvement to AODA.

"I found that no matter how angry the kids were, I could talk them down," Green explains. "It's all about your tone of voice."

'He could build a relationship with a rock'

One of Green's coworkers at the Academy was Prewitt, and they eventually became roommates as well. Even back then, the two had a shared vision of changing young lives in a meaningful way. Prewitt worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Rockford for eight years after leaving Eau Claire, first as education director and then as unit director.

He started helping Green with Mentoring Positives in 2007 and moved to Madison with his wife and two children the following year. His day job now is special education assistant at Lindbergh Elementary School, which Green held before he took his full-time position at the Salvation Army.

Prewitt says Green was quieter in his Eau Claire days, notwithstanding his hoop-star status. But it was a confident brand of quiet that drew people to him. "There was a joke around town that Will could build a relationship with a rock, because he understands the importance of relationships in influencing behaviors," Prewitt recalls.

Eau Claire is also where Green met his wife, Becky, when she came up from her native Waterloo, Wis., to attend the university. After graduating from UW-Eau Claire, Becky was hired as a supervision counselor -- essentially a probation officer for youth -- by Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, and Will moved to Madison with her. Two years later, he joined her at Youth Services. They got married in 2002.

"When we first got together, I told her I would never marry a white woman," laughs Green. "I was young...I didn't know what the heck I wanted. But 20 years later, here we are."

Bold move

Green was with Youth Services' Community Adolescent Programs (CAP) for four years. But he wasn't entirely happy with the gig. He had the nagging sense that he would be able to build more trust with the young black men he was working with if they didn't see him as part of "the system." By then he had built a lot of relationships with social workers, judges and district attorneys working through the CAP supervision program, and he decided to leverage those relationships to launch a mentoring service.

In 2003 Green's mother, Muriel Pipkins, was diagnosed with cancer and died at 46. Inspired by the values his mother always stood for, Green quit his full-time job and launched Mentoring Positives, the name a nod to his mother's initials.

"It was scary," says Becky, for whom Mentoring Positives is now a full-time job as well. "But I was excited for him."

Mentoring Positives serves two cohorts of kids: those who are referred by a social worker or corrections agency, and those for whom it's a voluntary community-center type arrangement. You could look at it as the "bad kids" and the "good kids," but the reality is that it's hard to tell the difference at a glance. They're already mingling at school and in their neighborhoods. And in some cases, they're already making the same mistakes. The main difference, Green notes, is that some haven't been caught yet and haven't formally hit the criminal justice system.

One thing they have in common is the need to see more role models who look and sound like them, and who can show them how to make better decisions.

"I got into this because I knew African American kids needed to see me in front of them," Green says. "A lot of kids get pretty turned off when you can't speak their language, whether it's about the music or about the criminal justice system. I'm able to connect to the kids in a fashion that most people are not."

Twenty-year-old Maurice "Mo" Banks -- who also happens to come from Gary, moving to Madison when he was 5 -- is typical of the kids Mentoring Positives serves. Banks has been coming to the Salvation Army to play basketball since he was 9, but when Green showed up soon after, it started to be about more than just sports. "Will teaches us basketball, but he also teaches us about life, about growing up and taking care of your responsibilities," Banks says.

Banks credits Green with helping him avoid the traps that have landed all too many of his peers in jail. For example, there was a tragic auto accident on Milwaukee Street in 2006 in which two girls were killed. "It was a stolen car, and a couple of my friends were involved," Banks says. "I could have been with them, but I chose not to go, and it's all because of what I've learned from Will about making those kinds of decisions."

Ald. Marsha Rummel, whose 6th District includes Darbo-Worthington, is among those impressed by the impact Mentoring Positives has had on neighborhood youth.

"Will and Becky Green's dedication comes from the heart and a deep understanding that these kids need," she says.

Rummel describes a recent community meal with city and county officials to solicit input from Darbo neighbors.

"Every Mentoring Positives kid there was engaged in every aspect of the evening. Will is helping to raise a generation of young men who will take ownership of their lives and their neighborhoods."

Urban agriculture

Green believes that one of the best routes out of poverty is through micro-enterprises. To that end, he's trying to teach youth the skills to become budding entrepreneurs. One of Mentoring Positives' coolest initiatives, Off the Block Salsa, is doing that, one jar at a time. It's urban agriculture, Business 101 and youth development all rolled into a single project.

For the last four years, Mentoring Positives kids have spent the summer growing tomatoes and peppers on an acre of community garden and cooking them into big batches of salsa. The name "Off the Block" comes from the idea that alternative activities like salsa-making can simultaneously help kids gain the skills they need to succeed and keep them off the streets where trouble can find them easily.

Right now, Green is working to take the project to the next level. He's enlisted the help of UW-Extension, which is supplying the expertise to ensure that the process and product are up to the standards necessary to sell the salsa in stores. Off the Block has a champion in supermarket owner Tim Metcalfe, who has provided financial support and is hoping to get the salsa onto his shelves soon.

Another micro-enterprise, headed by Becky Green, launched last year. Participants in ReJeweled collect old jewelry donated by the community, break it down and remake it into new pieces to be sold. As with Off the Block, ReJeweled's goals are multilevel. On the surface, it's about teaching kids how to start and market a business; but bubbling beneath are an assortment of life lessons related to leadership and overcoming adversity.

Combating poverty

When the Salvation Army job opened up last year, it seemed like a natural fit to Green. After all, he had been using the gym and classroom space at the community center to work with neighborhood youth for nine years at no cost to Mentoring Positives.

But not everybody in the Darbo neighborhood saw it that way. To some, the fit was anything but natural.

The Salvation Army Community Center functions as the de facto neighborhood center for Darbo-Worthington, but community members don't necessarily feel like it belongs to them because, well, it doesn't. City funds helped build the gym in 1999, but the arrangement between the Salvation Army and the city regarding access to the facility was never fully clarified. A lot of Darbo residents feel they've gotten a raw deal. They believe the Salvation Army should be providing more access to the facility. Green hopes he can help mend that frayed relationship over time.

"When I got this job, some individuals in the community would joke that I'd gone over to the enemy," Green recalls. "It made me realize that we might not have the best image in the neighborhood."

The tension between the neighborhood and the Salvation Army is connected to a broader problem: self-determination and neighborhood resources. Among Madison's "troubled" neighborhoods, Darbo-Worthington tends to be the forgotten one. When you mention that there are nine or 10 pockets of poverty around the city, Darbo is the one people have a hard time remembering. Green is hoping to change that.

Perhaps more importantly, he's hoping to bring more resources for combating poverty into the neighborhood. But the process of identifying and obtaining those resources can be rocky. Green is all about partnering, but he doesn't always jump to partner with the people he's told to by those who control the resources.

Funding for services provided in Darbo disproportionately goes to organizations based outside of the neighborhood. Green would like to see that balance change, arguing that support coming directly into the neighborhood makes community-development efforts more sustainable.

"I understand the importance of partnering and collaborating with those organizations, but the way the resources flow now isn't working," he says.

That situation creates tensions for Green. He worries that in some circles he gets criticized for not being a willing collaborator. He argues that not every collaboration is a good fit, adding, "I'm always looking for partners that have something good to offer the neighborhood."

Green believes that a shortage of funds for neighborhood services is less of a problem than how those funds get distributed -- a system in which grassroots organizations working on the street level like Mentoring Positives often get overlooked.

"Maybe it's time to throw the old funding mechanisms out the window and find new, innovative ways to get resources to the small organizations that are doing good work," Green suggests.

'It's gonna be okay'

The theme that connects the various pieces of Green's work is visibility. All people deserve to be seen and to have their voices heard.

"Often our people feel like their voices don't matter. We've got to start somewhere, having our young people be leaders. They need to be involved in the process from the beginning, not just on the back end."

And some of the most important components of the work don't cost much money.

"Therapy comes in a lot of different forms -- gardening, being out with kids, just being a positive role model," Green says. "A lot of people think that just because you don't have a lot of resources you can't help kids improve their lives. But all some kids need is a smile. They need to be valued and seen. You just need to let them know it's gonna be okay."

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