In the yellow shirt, soon-to-be high school freshman Andru Jimenez helps his friend, Josiah Murillo, rake brush from a yard on Aug. 9, 2023, in Garden City. Both boys are part of the leadership group Real Men Real Leaders, which provides community service and volunteer opportunities to local male youths. (AJ Dome for Kansas Reflector)
GARDEN CITY – Andru Jimenez and Josiah Murillo both have fond memories of their trip to the Kansas Capitol building earlier this year.
In March, volunteers with Garden City-based nonprofit organization Real Men Real Leaders took 13 boys to the capital to meet Gov. Laura Kelly and other state lawmakers. They also saw a few sights. Jimenez, 14, and Murillo, 13, climbed up the Statehouse dome’s 296 steps to the cupola.
“It was scary,” Murillo said.
“I was so scared that I’d try to take a picture and like, drop my phone,” Jimenez said.
The nonprofit provides after-school activities and leadership learning opportunities for southwest Kansas boys starting in 5th grade, free of charge to their families. The curriculum for the program offers hands-on lessons in life skills — including participation in annual hunter safety courses through the state Department of Wildlife and Parks — volunteerism, civic service and government.
Additionally, the grant and donation-funded organization provides yearly educational trips, like the March Topeka visit.
A recent addition to the nonprofit’s repertoire is a podcast, where agency leaders interview a group of boys about the leadership skills they’re learning in the program. The podcast is posted weekly on the organization’s website, RealMenRealLeaders.org.
As part of the boys’ Statehouse trip, a proclamation was read in the House of Representatives, recognizing Real Men Real Leaders for 10 years “of service cultivating young men into leaders by influencing positive decision making.”
The proclamation was sponsored by Reps. Bill Clifford and Bob Lewis, both Republicans from Garden City.
Murillo said the trip was amazing, but the ride home was a bit uncomfortable for his friend, Jimenez.
“I got a little carsick,” Jimenez said.
Fifth grade matters
Jimenez will be a Garden City High School freshman, while Murillo will be an eighth grader at Horace Good Middle School when classes start this year.
“I’ve told a lot of kids to join (Real Men Real Leaders),” Murillo said, “because they take you places.”
Both boys started with RMRL in 5th grade. About 60 boys are enrolled in activities during any given school year, according to program director Jonas Cruz. In total, about 200 boys currently participate, from 5th grade to high school seniors. Cruz said last year’s group logged more than 1,800 hours of volunteer time, performing various community service projects across Garden City.
Fifth grade marks a transition period for students in USD 457, as Garden City children move on from elementary schools to the district’s two 5th and 6th grade buildings, Bernadine Sitts and Charles O. Stones Intermediate Centers. Bernadine Sitts counselor Jana Kennemer said she’s seen success among 5th grade boys who enter the program.
“Essentially how it’s really helped the kids is, as they get into the program, they get a sense of belonging,” Kennemer said. “They’re taught some life skills, and they end up having better classroom behaviors.”
The program largely serves at-risk students who are entering one of the two intermediate centers. Those students may be identified as needing the program by officials at their elementary schools, or families can ask that their child be considered for possible placement. Kennemer said she will reach out to interested families or those referred to her before the start of school to get them an information packet to fill out. Whoever fills out the packet and returns it first gets placed in the program for the year, Kennemer said.
“It’s sort of first-come, first-serve. I don’t advertise it to my whole population,” Kennemer said. “We have so many kids (who are interested), it’s already hard enough to say no.”
Through a partnership with USD 457, program leaders have access to student records, such as grades and disciplinary actions. Executive director Reynaldo Mesa said this is to help Cruz address whatever needs a student may have, socially or emotionally, so they can be successful in school and in life. Any information shared by school district officials is kept between the district, program leadership and boys’ families.
Mesa said they chose to start with 5th grade boys because, in his past discussions with district officials, he learned that milestone was “critical” in a child’s development.
“That must be a critical point, when they move on and start creating or going down a path they believe is the one they think they need to take,” Mesa said. “They’re highly influenced” at that grade.
Mesa, a former city mayor and state representative, said he was having discussions with Latino business owners in Garden City 15 years ago about how to address issues such as high dropout and teen pregnancy rates among middle and high school students.
“We felt like we needed to do something,” Mesa said. “Oftentimes, these issues and challenges are always left to the teachers, law enforcement, parents, which it should be, and other folks in the community. We can’t just sit back and continue; we have to be part of that solution.”
The first iteration of the program was called “Real Men Real Heroes,” and Mesa said it began with himself and other volunteers having lunch with students at their schools.
“Bernadine Sitts (Intermediate Center) was the first school,” Mesa said, “and we started having lunch with the boys there. Then we ended up going to Charles O. Stones, and that’s how it started.”
Mesa and Cruz both want to expand the nonprofit in several ways. They are seeking avenues to create a program for 5th grade girls, and Mesa said he wants to develop relationships with Kansas’ higher learning institutions to create pathways for students looking to continue their education beyond high school. Cruz said he also needs more volunteer help on field trips and community projects.
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