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100 Black Men group reaches out to young males

Last week, we told you about an event in Columbia, South Carolina, called the Great Gathering. Nearly 7,000 members of the three major black Methodist denominations met because they believe the church needs to play a larger role in helping young black males so they don't become negative statistics. Organizers unveiled a plan that calls for Saturday Academies at black Methodist churches. But something similar has been taking place in Charlotte for several years. They're even called Saturday Academies. About 20 male black teens are taking part in a group mentoring session at Charlotte's Kipp Center. Today's topics include job interview skills and work habits. This probably isn't what most teen-agers would volunteer to do on a Saturday morning, not when you can sleep. Dondre Williams didn't have a choice. His mother signed him up four years ago. "I was like, Oh man, on a Saturday?" Today, Dondre Williams is glad he's here, at the Saturday Academy run by a group called 100 Black Men of Charlotte. Donnie Koonce is its president. "We, generally, we look for kids who are 11, 12 years of age - the younger, the better. We want them to be exposed to everything we have to offer through high school," he says. Roughly 25 students meet for a few hours every two weeks throughout the school year. Usually, it's parents who sign them up, but there's not room for everyone. There is an application process. But most come from single-parent homes. And Koonce says they all face tremendous peer pressure: "They may not be in an environment at school where it's cool to be doing the right thing and be making good grades. We try to impress upon them, 'That's OK.' You need to be the master of your own faith, the captain of your own ship. If this is what you want to do, you need to do it and 'Oh, by the way, you have a support group here to balance the issues that you may be facing at school,' " Koonce says. Each kid gets a mentor who helps steer them in the right direction. That was particularly important to Frederica Crews. This is the first year her 13-year-old son has been part of 100 Black Men. "I wanted him to have a mentor because I'm divorced and his dad is incarcerated," Crews says. U.S. Census figures show almost two-thirds of African-American kids don't have a biological father living at home. And that can lead to other issues. A Justice Department report found the incarceration rate for black men in 2008 was 6.5 times that of white men. And for Crews, it's a vicious cycle. "I'm a child of the 60s, and here we are in 2010, and the issues that I was hearing about growing up are the same issues we're hearing about today: Absence of the father in home, male children being raised by females without the support of the extended family." Dondre Williams says the 100 Black Men program has changed his life. "I can honestly say I've participated in things I'm not proud of, but this program has shown me that you don't have to do that just to be cool. You can excel in what you do and that'll make you cool doing what you do instead of what everyone else is doing," Williams says. Dedicated students of the program are rewarded. Those who graduate from high school with a 2.5 GPA receive a $7,500 scholarship. A 3.0 GPA is worth $10,000. The group boasts that 95 percent graduates qualify for scholarships. Dondre Williams intends to be one of them.