Jerry Overstreet Jr. has two homes. He shares one with his wife, Jenny, and his kids, a 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. The other he shares with roughly 50 Madison middle and high school students who need a safe harbor in their stormy adolescent years.
"I do it because someone did it for me," says Overstreet, explaining that a friend's house served as a safe harbor for him when he was growing up in Racine. "Having somewhere I could go reinforced what I had at home. I was held accountable for my actions, and it really helped me along the way."
Overstreet, 39, runs an after-school program called MYCRIB, for Mentoring Youth by Creating Relationships and Influencing Behavior. His kids have a history of truancy, suspension, disruptive behavior and run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
Most are African American and come from single-parent homes. And they relate to Overstreet, who was raised in a predominantly female-headed household.
"It was the typical African American household," he says. "Lots of moms and aunties." They gave him the support he needed to succeed.
After graduating with a degree in Student Integrated Curriculum at Western Michigan University, Overstreet worked as a teacher at a child-care center in Kalamazoo, Mich. "That was when I knew that working with kids is what I wanted to do," he says.
In 2004, he moved to Madison and took a series of jobs with the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Kennedy Heights Community Center and the Community Adolescent Program. From those experiences he fashioned his thinking for running the MYCRIB program.
During the day, Overstreet works as an in-school mentor at Toki and Sennett middle schools, which includes advocating for parents whose children are in trouble.
"Sometimes he provides transportation or sits in if the parent can't make a meeting," says Sennett principal Colleen Lodholz. "He also meets with parents outside of school and makes sure they understand what is going on with their kids."
Overstreet's contribution is "invaluable," Lodholz says. "He's one of a few staff of color we have, and he's the only black male. Jerry is very student-centered, and he's responsive to the kids' needs."
During the school year, Overstreet spends about two hours a day after school with students at the MYCRIB apartment, which is located on Hazelwood Court on Madison's southeast side. On Mondays, a group of about 15 to 20 girls use the apartment. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are reserved for boys. Time is divvied up for homework, eating, recreation and discussion.
"If they don't have homework, I always have worksheets to keep them busy," he says. The worksheets usually relate to the daily discussion known as "Jerry Time," between 5 and 5:45 p.m. A whiteboard hanging in the dining room lists three conversation topics: "Are you at risk?" "Ten things my school can do." "'Day-to-Day' vs. 'Long-Term.'"
Overstreet's goal is to help his students develop self-awareness to better understand the challenges they face in life. "Knowing that I'll listen before I talk is what creates the relationship," he says.
Overstreet doesn't present himself as a teacher, but as a sympathetic adult who kids can go to for advice. He jokes with them without diminishing his authority.
It doesn't hurt that Overstreet has a basketball player's physique and can handle himself in the open gym sessions. His demeanor is upbeat and positive.
But Overstreet demands that his kids demonstrate responsibility. He believes they want structure, and he holds them accountable for their MYCRIB time.
The students who cook and clean up have the privilege of serving themselves first. This often means first dibs on the biggest pizza slice.
But if a student is disrespectful and creates a scene, Overstreet closes MYCRIB for the day. He feels respect is a two-way street.
Overstreet's involvement with the kids extends beyond school and the MYCRIB time. He'll help them with their errands and attend after-school functions. On alternating weekends for the boys and girls, he hosts field trips and movie nights. During the summer, MYCRIB scales backs and connects the students to other programs run by Madison School & Community Recreation and the Boys and Girls Club.
"If they're required to attend summer school, we make sure they are attending," Overstreet says.
He'll also visit the kids at their homes. At times of crisis, he'll let them sleep at the MYCRIB apartment. "As much as I want to invite every kid to my house, I can't," Overstreet says firmly. "But I can invite them here."
In late June, Overstreet was sidelined by a heart attack, from which he is now recovering. He expects to be back in full swing come this fall, although he does have people "lined up to help out."
African American students from single-parent homes face a world of problems. The middle school years, when the hormones kick in, make things even harder.
Enis Ragland, a veteran city of Madison manager and founding president of 100 Black Men of Madison, says his group focuses on mentoring middle school students for just that reason.
Ragland praises MYCRIB's efforts, saying that Overstreet is nurturing "hard-to-reach youth who have sometimes made bad decisions or chosen a negative path."
Overstreet shares Ragland's belief that these kids need mentoring as much as anything. Teachers can't really do it, he says, because they play a different role in the lives of students.
"Everyone keeps trying to figure out what the solution is," he says of minority kids struggling in school. "I keep trying to tell them in-school mentors would help."
In January, MYCRIB officially obtained nonprofit status. For Overstreet, who basically runs a one-man operation, it was an important milestone. His future plans are small but ambitious.
"My dream would be to have a whole bunch of MYCRIBs all over Madison," he says. "One on the east side, west side and north side."