Brothers, Keepers
Mentoring program feels more like family
By Gayle Boss

mentorsBruce Boman had an unlikely career counselor.

In 1999, Boman was a junior and one of the first participants in Calvin’s Project Neighborhood, an off-campus housing opportunity for students willing to live intentionally in a Christian household and an urban Grand Rapids neighborhood. In the neighborhood, he had been spending time with an 11-year-old boy named Marquan Jackson. One Saturday, Marquan asked him a simple question. Boman remembers:

“He said, ‘What are you going to do when you’re done with Calvin?’ To him it seemed that, ‘Gee, here you are, this white guy, going to college, you can do anything you want. What are you going to do?’ Well I honestly didn’t know. So I took the next couple of weeks to think and pray about it. My relationship with Marquan and his brothers was growing, and so I thought, ‘What if I just stick around here and watch these guys grow up?’”

At 11, Marquan was the oldest brother. Marionté was 8, Lemarr, 6: The Mars-Bros, Boman called them. The Mars-Bros think of Boman as one of them. They have for a long time. Here’s Lemarr, now 16: “As far as I can remember, we’ve always been connected. I think of him as a brother.”

And 18-year-old Marionté: “I see Bruce as Bruce. He’s part of our family. I haven’t thought of him as a mentor.”

It’s telling that from the first newsletter Boman circulated to raise money for his activities with the boys, he didn’t call his fledging organization The Oakdale Neighborhood Mentoring Project, or something akin to that. From the start it was Mars-Bros, and it would be long after the program had grown to include 50 kids. Brotherhood—and later sisterhood—would be the heart of every effort.

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Gerald Smith (left) and Mack Smith (right) are leaders of the chess club.

Passing on Assets
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, year round, Boman and a handful of volunteers push tables together at the Madison Square branch library. A dozen kids, most of them boys, buzz around them, ready to play chess. Library staff cut them slack, let them brag out loud:

“No way you’re gonna beat me,” says 12-year-old JoVone Cohen-Reed to a bigger boy.

It matters to him. The kids earn points and a ranking based on the quality of their play, and that determines the level at which they’ll play in weekend tournaments sponsored by the West Michigan Chess Federation.

“We formed the chess club as a way to meet kids and to provide programming for kids who are waiting for a mentor,” Boman said.

He also refers to the chess club as an “asset group.” It’s a term that comes from 20 years of research conducted by a group called the Search Institute into what elements in their day-to-day experiences kids between the ages of 12 and 18 need to thrive. The institute has identified 40 such elements, called “developmental assets.”

“Chess teaches patience, of course,” said Gerald Smith, a Mars-Bros chess coach. He’s been playing the game since 1965. “And it teaches how to focus on one task for a limited period of time, which translates for these kids into an ability to do their homework. Chess also teaches them to think ahead about the consequences of their moves. Well, you can see the value of that, can’t you?”

Thirteen-year-old Mack Smith, Jr., sits down across the board from Gerald. They’re not related, except that Gerald says, “These are all my kids.” Mack is a member of the Mars-Bros chess club and captain of a club that, with Boman’s help, he started at his school, Gerald R. Ford Middle. “Since I’ve been playing chess, I’ve gained in logic and critical thinking,” he said. “When I recruit kids at school for the club, I tell them, ‘Instead of fighting with your hands and feet, try fighting with your mind.’”

Recreational reading is another developmental asset Mars-Bros cultivates in kids. At Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church, 10 boys and girls fall into comfortable chairs and couches in the church parlor and pull out their books—not school-assigned, but books they’ve chosen from the church library. Some read silently, some aloud.

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Shocka Williams (front) with Chance Johnson.

Chance Johnson, a fifth-grader, is reading Frindle with Shocka Williams. “Mr. Shocka sits by me, and if I get stuck on a word he’ll correct me—but in a nice way. After we read, I write in my journal, and he takes the journal home and he writes back to me.”

“I write questions for him, to get his thinking processes going,” Williams said. “When I first started reading with Chance, he wasn’t that enthused about books, but as I worked with him, I could see him light up—and that makes me happy.”

Kids involved in Mars-Bros rank rather high in “positive identity,” one of the eight categories into which the 40 developmental assets fall. Real skills—like chess and reading—build self-esteem. But on a Search Institute survey, they scored considerably lower in the category of “empowerment.” That’s because empowerment, Boman points out, is closely linked to stability.

“These are kids who might easily have attended four different schools in eight years and lived in five different houses,” said Kris Koster, a Mars-Bros mentor since 2005. “Their cell phones, if they have them, change monthly. So consistency in our relationship is the hardest thing to achieve.”

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Danzell Maze (left) and mentor Kris Koster

For over two years, Koster has mentored Danzell Maze, now a sophomore and a standout football lineman at Ottawa Hills High School. Koster attends his games. They play basketball and watch football on TV together. They work on Danzell’s geometry.

“As a star athlete, it’s easy for Danzell to think that academics don’t matter,” said Koster, an All-American cross country runner at Calvin. “I send the message that athletics aren’t always going to be there, and I try to make sure he’s doing the things he needs to do to succeed at school.”

“By hanging out with Kris, I actually understand how serious life is and how important your work is,” said Danzell, who dreams of a scholarship to a Division I college. “And, through all the talking we do, I’ve learned how to have more respect for people.”

Respect—for one’s self and others—is also a developmental asset, one that’s best cultivated in a stable, consistent relationship. That, Boman said, is Mars-Bros first priority: one-on-one mentoring.

Like Danzell and Lemarr, Marionté and Marquan, JoVone doesn’t have a present and active father. His mother, Edith Reed, sought out Mars-Bros, looking for a “stable relationship with a positive male for JoVone.”

Every week, Matt Cinco meets JoVone. Often they go to the Cincos’ home in Grandville where JoVone plays with the couple’s two young children and works on Matt’s tractor with him. A different world, a different perspective on life.

Within a few weeks of getting to know Cinco, JoVone’s grade in math went from a D to a B+. “JoVone has developed a friendship he can count on,” Edith Reed said, “and he’s learned that his responses to situations do affect others.”

Kris Koster knows he’s not a surrogate father to Danzell. But, he said, “Bruce and I and the other mentors can show and tell these kids consistently that we care about and believe in them and that God cares about them. That can change a kid’s whole life.”

A Lifestyle, Not a Program
Bruce Boman knows about that change firsthand. “I grew up poor and got teased,” he said. “I never wanted people to meet my family. Because I didn’t feel my parents cared about me, I dropped out of school and ran away. I was in line to be a homeless person, but God pulled me out of it.”

“Bruce has a great heart for kids who struggle because he’s one,” said Sue Oosterink. She and her husband, Bruce, were the mentors in the Project Neighborhood house where Boman lived when he first met the three original Mars-Bros. They encouraged him to see his relationship-building in the neighborhood as work worthy of fund raising.

“I learned from them that it’s really all about relationships,” Boman said, “and building all the aspects of community.”

So Boman bought a house in the neighborhood where most Mars-Bros kids live. “We’re not the program that’s up front with big numbers,” he said. “In fact, I don’t want kids to see this as a program at all, but as a lifestyle—a lifestyle of investing deeply in other people, a Christ-like life. We set not only academic and social goals with the kids, but spiritual goals, too, because we want them to know Christ and lean on Him in every situation.”

Boman wants the fruit of Mars-Bros, the lifestyle, to be “indigenous, Christ-centered leaders raised up for the future.”

He’s beginning to see that fruit, as is Gretha Jackson, mother to Marquan, Marionté and Lemarr. She said, “Bruce has really helped them grow into responsible young men.”

Marquan has a high school diploma, though he’s taken a hard road to get it. Lemarr is a junior, on the basketball team, earning high grades in pre-calculus and helping younger kids in the Mars-Bros reading club. Marionté, a two-time state qualifier in high school wrestling, works part-time as a driver for a print and mail services company and attends Grand Rapids Community College.

“Now it’s time for me to take what I’ve learned about leadership out into the world,” Marionté said, “to take what Bruce did for us and try to do that for others.”      

Visit Mars-Bros to learn more about the program, including how to help.

Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.