Choosing to Excel is in its 21st year. Executive Director Thelma Moton said she had no intention of being here this long.
Excel is known for its encourager or mentor program, but the organization is truly multifaceted. It starts in the classroom, continues with a summer program and can extend to a mentor relationship.
“The outreach to students was developed in an effort to come alongside teachers and administrators to help kids who are struggling with choices and don’t know which direction to go,” Moton said.
It is Choosing to Excel’s mission to impact lives and make a positive difference one life at a time.
“The community isn’t aware of all that we provide,” Moton said. “They see us as a mentor program, but you can mentor in different ways.”
One of the ways Choosing to Excel is mentoring young lives is through their weekly meetings with boys and girls in local middle and high schools.
The program for young women is called G.E.M.S. or Girls Eagerly Maintaining (High) Standards.
“We have a space where they come and build kind of like a sisterhood, and it’s where we can really become diverse and talk about issues that are unique to anyone,” Moton said. “No matter what the culture is there are things that are unique to girls.”
Young men have a similar program called M.O.C.Q. or Men of Character & Quality where “they get to talk real talk,” Moton said.
Local community members such as football coaches and business leaders attend the meetings as guest speakers.
G.E.M.S. director Christel Weaver tries to incorporate lessons in the activities the girls do each week such as how to reach your goals.
Weaver did an exercise with her daughter when her daughter was a senior in high school where she put her daughter’s cellphone in front of her and while it vibrated and beeped, she wasn’t allowed to touch it.
“That was hard, but she could not touch it because she was getting ready to leave for college, and I needed her to know that mama’s not going to be there to tell you don’t pick up that phone,” she said. “You’re going to have to make the decision to not pick up that phone.”
Weaver had her daughter write down the feelings and frustrations she was experiencing during the exercise.
“I wanted her to know that you’re going to feel that sometimes when you’re trying to achieve your goals, but you’ve got to be determined and committed all the way to the end to do what it is you set your mind to, and sometimes that means ignoring the things that will distract you or hinder you from achieving your goal,” she said.
Last year the programs exceeded their capacity, Moton said.
These in school programs have been implemented in 10 communities in the state of Arkansas. Excel is also helping Oklahoma and North Carolina establish parts of the program in their states.
Student Abby Baker said she was looking for an environment where she would be more accepted for her morals, and an environment where it would be easier for her to make the right choices and reach her goals.
During eighth grade Baker attended G.E.M.S. each Friday. At the end of the year the Leadership Team came to her school and performed a skit, and she knew she needed to be part of that team.
“Something I’m really passionate about is good environments in high school even though that good environment isn’t typical,” she said.
The Leadership Team is a way Choosing to Excel mentors students through students. The team consists of young men and women who perform skits at local schools and share how to make healthy choices.
Since 2000, Moton said 80 to 85 members of the Leadership Team have graduated and gone on to college.
Student Alaysia Berry said she first started participating in G.E.M.S. because of the free pizza, but soon found out she had a passion for making a difference.
After volunteering and participating in Excel programs for a year, Berry was accepted on the Leadership Team, and has been traveling to area schools advocating for healthy choices since. “I’m free to express myself and I have a voice,” she said. “I’m able to communicate my voice to other people like us and it makes a difference. I like the fact that I can make a difference.”
“As we continued to implement these programs we realized young people need more than information,” she said. Information without ongoing relationships does little for change and growth, Moton said, so Excel developed their first expansion with a summer program in 1999.
“So when kids are out of school, probably one of the most volatile times of their lives, when parents are at work and kids are left free, we provide a safe place with adult supervised activities,” she said.
Excel exposes these children to opportunities they wouldn’t typically get such as swimming and visiting the Museum of Discovery in downtown Little Rock. As well as expand their reading habits and sharpen their math skills.
“We see them every single day for five to six weeks,” Moton said. “Every single day we get the opportunity to build and pour into those young people, so when they go back into school we have that connection.”
The second phase of growth was the encourager program where students are matched by gender with an adult or upper division college student. These mentors meet with their student for one hour a week for a minimum of one year for consistency in that child’s life.
At times, Moton said, the organization has had upwards of 200 encouragers and mentees.
“It’s ideal for an encourager to stay with a child from fourth grade all the way through high school because that’s when true mentorship takes place,” Moton said.
Rob Miller is an art history professor at Hendrix College who has been an encourager to three students. His first experience as an encourager was short lived, but his second attempt started when the child was in fourth grade and ended when he graduated from high school.
“When I saw my mentee through to graduation, our conversations reached a level of maturity,” he said. “He asked good questions, I attempted to give good answers and it was a really good situation where you feel like you’re getting more than you’re giving.”
Miller is currently participating in his third encourager experience with a 13 year old Faulkner County student.
“Sometimes I feel like the time stretches and it’s a bit difficult to get it going, and I’m sure he feels awkward too, and other times I feel like, oh we’re done, and he has to go to class,” he said. “It takes awhile, but when he warms up, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Moton said the encourager program is hurting for male mentors.
“It’s really a very successful program and It’s amazing at this point that more people don’t volunteer,” Miller said.
Daniel Tyler, founder of Deliver Hope, a non-profit, faith-based organization that helps to serve at-risk youth, knows the value of a male role model. Tyler recently spoke to encouragers who were going through the training process to be paired with a student.
Tyler grew up as the son of crystal meth addicts.
“It was hard for me to figure out what it was supposed to look like for me to be a young man, for me to have bright conversations, to be honest, for what it was like for me to treat a woman,” he said.
When Tyler was 12 he connected with his friend Chris who he hung out with as often as he could.
“What people didn’t know is, I didn’t hang out with Chris so much so I could be with Chris, I was with Chris so I could be with his dad,” he said.
Tyler learned how to be a man through watching his friend’s dad.
When Tyler was a teen he took advantage of girls and often found himself lying to fit in, until one day when the role model in his life said, “Daniel Tyler is good enough for me. You don’t have to be anybody else or act like anybody else. You are good enough for me.”
“That catapulted me into touching the lives of other young people,” Tyler said.
The Choosing to Excel office can be contacted at 501-505-8590. Their website is http://www.c2espace.com.
(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)