By Catherine McLaughlin, Staff Writer
When Craig Yount arrived as a freshman at Furman, the Men of Distinction Program asked him to volunteer. He was apprehensive. He did not like working with children.
“I really thought that I did not enjoy being around [kids],” the sophomore said. Then he met Nancy Cooper, Heller Service Corps’ coordinator for volunteer services. Cooper and his friends pushed him to join the organization.
Men of Distinction is a 10-year-old Furman program that inspires, motivates and educates some of Greenville’s poorest and most at risk middle school boys. This year’s program has 17 registered participants, two of whom have autism, and 30 volunteer mentors. The program meets weekly, alternating its curriculum between educational lessons and practical skills. As program director, Yount’s aim is to support and inspire boys within the worst environments, and to instill gratitude among its mentors.
“The first week I was pretty apprehensive because I didn’t think I was going to connect with these kids,” Yount said. It was not until his second week with the program that he experienced a change of heart when he was driving some of the participants home after the program.
“There was this one kid who came to me afterwards…At his house, his washer and dryer were actually outside on his front porch and they were rusted out…He came to me because he was really embarrassed I didn’t drop him off last,” Yount said. The two began to talk about both of their home lives and connected over their similarities. “[He] was a turning point because I knew then that I could be a mentor and also learn from these kids.”
“These kids are in danger of missing out on a fuller life. These are underprivileged, at-risk kids. Most come from a single parent home or grandparent raised homes of very low income and poor educational backgrounds. Most of their parents have dropped out of high school because of teen pregnancy and a lot of other factors,” Yount said. He added that for many of these boys, who live in Greenville County’s poorest neighborhoods, there is little parental involvement because many of their parents or grandparents are working up to three jobs.
The program meets every Friday at Furman. “We talk about college and their college path or trade schools. And then on the off weeks of that we have practical weeks,” Yount said. “We did a cooking class, an etiquette class and we’re doing other practical things like how to dress up and tie a tie. These are very practical things that even our autistic kids that probably won’t go on to college will still be able to use in the real world.”
The program seeks boys from Berea Middle School and, recently, Judson Middle School. It spreads by word of mouth and the schools’ social workers, who seek out students who would be a good fit for the program.
“These are the ‘special ones’ in middle school,” Yount explained. “They are the ones that are actually thinking about what they are going to do with their life, and we want them to and we get excited about it.”
Yount also said that he hopes to focus more on the impact the program has on its volunteers. “I am also trying to bring together mentors in the program since a lot of our volunteers don’t come from low income families,” Yount said. “I did. My socioeconomic level was not perfect so I have a better idea of what these kids go through, obviously not at all what they go through but at least some faint idea. But some of our mentors just have no clue and have never grown up around it so I enjoy watching the mentors learn as well.”
Yount added that he thinks this program is important in the university setting. “At Furman, you’re only exposed to so many people and yeah, we do have a lot of intellectual diversity and have a lot of deep philosophical conversations but can we sustain a conversation with a 12-year-old who is talking about basketball and LeBron James all the time?”
Yount also reflected on his personal connection with the boys in the program.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Yount said. “[The boys] have become like my own little cousins. I come and give them a hard time and trash talk them on the basketball court but then we’re able to talk about family life.”
Yount added that he has even hung out with some of the boys on weekends. “We have a group of four and we call them the ‘Old Boys’ and those four are the ones that we have hung out with on Saturday afternoons and played basketball and have gotten super close.”
“I’ve learned so much from these kids, but the biggest thing I have learned is to never be surprised what they can teach you,” Yount said. “What these kids have been through surprises you. They teach me something every week.”
Though he has no interest in working with children in his professional life, Yount plans on continuing to build this program during his next two years at Furman. He said, “You learn the importance of holding onto the small things in life at the same time as teaching these boys, the future of our society, to see the big picture.”