SCHENECTADY — When Trey Tillman was in 8th grade, he considered himself a shy, quiet kid without a sense of direction.
But things began to change when he entered Schenectady High School four years ago and got involved with My Brother’s Keeper, a mentorship program launched by former President Barack Obama in 2014 that aims to address opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color.
“One of my friends was involved,” Tillman said. “I was walking with him and he told me about the program and I just decided to go in. They let me in and, ever since then, the rest is history.”
Today, Tillman is a senior on the cusp of graduating with plans to attend community college and a goal of becoming a teacher.
It’s a path that Tillman didn’t know was possible until joining the program.
He admitted to missing classes and having no real aspirations until mentors from the program, many who faced similar situations growing up, showed him a path forward and instilled in him the importance of education.
“It meant everything to me, because now I can see anything is possible,” Tillman said. “Without mentors or without other people in your life — if you don’t have that support system, then you just think that you’re nothing. Having that support system is very important.”
On Saturday, Tillman was one of more than four dozen Schenectady students who attended a My Brother’s Keeper open house at the Boys & Girls Club along Education Avenue, the first event of the year that focused on attracting new members and forging community bonds.
The program was brought to Schenectady in 2018 by a group of Union College students as part of a community outreach effort.
It’s that sense of community that continues to drive the program today, according to Brian Ledbetter, the program coordinator who grew up in the city and helped launch the program while attending Union.
The program features a number of mentors, including school administrators, but ultimately hinges on forging connections been students by pairing older students with those who are younger.
College students from Union help mentor high school students. High school students then mentor those in middle school who then pass on what they learn to those in elementary school.
“I keep coming back to building community through the MBK program,” Ledbetter said. “That will be the vehicle that will support and aid the development of our future in this community.”
Sunday’s event centered around sports and how lessons learned on the field can be applied to life.
The students broke into smaller groups, where leaders asked a range of questions on what it means to be tough and what defines a leader. The lesson emphasized making right decisions and opening opportunities through education.
The group snapped their fingers in support as group members gave answers that ranged from one word to in-depth responses that lasted for a few minutes. Following the group session, the students gathered in the gym of Mont Pleasant Middle School for several rounds of dodgeball.
“The goal is to give the kids a space where they can be themselves, say what’s on their mind, what’s in their heart,” said Steven Thomas, a restorative practice program coordinator with Schenectady schools who lead one of the groups.
Dennis Green, Schenectady High School’s principal, urged the students to always strive to be the best they can and put in the work necessary to making their dreams come true.
“Practice makes what?” he asked the group.
“Perfect,” the students replied in unison.
“Wrong,” Green replied. “Practice makes better. Nobody’s perfect.”
Superintendent Anibal Soler, meanwhile, said he is working with the city to grow the program, and has started the process of getting the city’s My Brother’s Keeper program formerly recognized by the state’s Department of Education.
More than 20 communities have My Brother’s Keeper programs formally recognized by the state, including Albany, Poughkeepsie and Syracuse.
Soler said he has written a formal letter that has been signed by Mayor Gary McCarthy and that the pair are planning a press event in the near future to bring further attention to the cause.
Formal recognition would unlock grant opportunities that can be used to host more events and expand outreach efforts, Soler said.
He added the goal is to expand the program in the hopes of inspiring students and ultimately improve learning outcomes for students of color, which continue to lag behind white students in the district.
“What I want to see is our graduation rates get better for young men of color,” Soler said. “I’d like to see them continue to improve and be productive members of Schenectady and either go to college or [get a] career or whatever they decide to do, and that they have options and have advocates in their lives.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.