By Syd Hayman, Managing News Editor
Society may still build walls around some of its members, but the Our Kids (O.K.) Program helps young African-American males break free with a step in the right direction. The mentoring program, which was founded in 1990 in Rancho Cordova, Calif., by deputy Donald Northcross, aims to instill better choices in young black males.
The program was adopted in Little Rock about a year and a half ago and is supported through a partnership with the Little Rock School District, the Little Rock Police Department and Arkansas Baptist College.
Maurice Sanders, a Little Rock police officer and the Central chapter coordinator of the program, spoke at an O.K Program showcase at Dunbar Middle School on Nov. 5.
Sanders introduced a video of his interaction with Dunbar teachers about the O.K. Program members and inviting new students into the program. It also shows Sanders making a home visit to one of the program’s members.
“We talk about our program. We talk about education. We even address finances,” Sanders said.
Sanders values the time that he spends with O.K. Program members at their schools during lunch, in their classrooms and in their homes. He talks with parents about the progress that their sons are making.
“I’m developing relationships with these young men each and everyday,” he said.
O.K. Program members are encouraged to take part in volunteer service and activities. These activities range from cleaning up a nearby neighborhood to learning how to cook for themselves on a camping trip. By allowing the boys to take part in the community and teaching them to better themselves, program mentors and officers are reaching the program’s goals.
“Four points that we definitely want the community to know is we’re trying to decrease the number of homicides in the black community, decrease the incarceration rate, fight teen pregnancy for our young black women, respectfully, and increase education in our black men out here,” Sanders said.
Eric Higgins, an assistant chief of police, spoke at the showcase about the importance of decreasing the homicide rates.
“We get together and we talk about it, some of us will rap about it or sing about it or write about it,” Higgins said. “But we don’t do anything about it.”
Higgins gave statistics about the number of homicides and arrests made in the black community over the last several years.
“We know it’s a problem,” he said. “But are we going to do anything about it?”
Higgins says that adults heavily influence the choices made by young males.
“If he grows up thinking he’s supposed to be a thug, that’s our fault,” Higgins said. “[O.K. mentors] help our young men understand that there are other options. We can’t wait for somebody else to do something for our kids.”
Even though the Little Rock School District is active in the partnership, O.K Program membership is limited to students in grades six through 12 who attend Dunbar or Central. The issue that is keeping the program from expanding is the “want factor,” Sanders said, meaning schools have to want the program.
Senior De’Uno Paxton, who is vice president of the program, has been a member for two months and originally became familiar with the program when Sanders was driving through a neighborhood and stopped to speak to him about it.
“He comes up to the school and checks on us and our grades,” De’Uno said. “Academically, he talks with the teachers. He’s always around.”
De’Uno sees the program having a significant impact for all of its members.
“It’s good for mentoring the younger ones,” De’Uno said. “It’s good for African-Americans period.”
Senior Lamer Nealy also recently joined the club, but through an encounter with Sanders at a Gentleman’s Club meeting.
“[The program] helped me learn how to communicate with others [and] be a better leader,” Lamer said.
Lamer sees benefit in expanding the “want factor.”
“It will make [the program] more well known,” Lamer said. “People will feel more comfortable joining.”
Sanders hopes that other schools will join soon.
“We’re hoping Dunbar and Central see the results and things going on [so] that they’ll want it at Forest Heights, and going into Hall and they’ll want it at McClellan and whatnot,” Sanders said.
The partnership between the LRSD, the LRPD and Arkansas Baptist College allows officers like Sanders to work in Little Rock schools.
“These three entities alone come in and bring the program together,” he said. “They support the O.K. Program itself.”
Sanders and other officers of the program stay familiar with its members as they progress through school.
“When you go from elementary to a middle school, you’re getting [familiarized again] with the program,” Sanders said. “And then it goes into a high school. So all of this is just reinforcing the positive aspects of the program.”
The program is continuing to stand out by being involved in the community.
“Right now we’re putting the name of the O.K. out there and letting them know in the school district what we’re talking about.” Sanders said. “For the most part, as you hear about it, you’ll also see it.”
If the males in the program maintain 2.5 GPAs and good citizenship in schools, they are rewarded with a trip.
They have taken trips to Mount Eagle in Clinton and the Black Rodeo in Monroe, La., and they attended the Delta Classic for Literacy football game and parade on Nov. 7 and a Razorback football game on Nov. 14.
“For myself as a black man, not just as a police officer, [O.K. Program members] need to learn by leading by example,” Sanders said. “So we get positive men in our community to come out and do the positive things so these guys see and know what to do, not just think.”
One of those men is the Rev. Henry Parker, who also spends time with the boys in the program. Parker saw potential when he first met them.
“These boys are victorious and they may not even know it yet because they have men behind them who have time to help them be victorious,” Parker said.
The program is continuing to expand in members and mentors.
“This is my job,” Sanders said. “This is my full time job. I don’t write tickets anymore. I am a full-time police officer dedicated to this program.”
For more information on the OurKids Program, visit www.okprogram.org.