MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) – Since September, a handful of young boys willingly woke up every Saturday morning for life lessons and education. They were given breakfast as well as social and fitness time. It was on these Saturday mornings the young boys matured. They learned to value education and their community, and developed a positive self image.
The Saturday program, also known as the New Opportunities Boys to Men Enrichment Program, has been helping young African-American and Latino boys become men for the past nine years. Six city youths will symbolically cross over into adulthood after completing the six-month program this month.
"I love this program,'' said Elijah Diaz, 16, a junior at Platt High School. "It taught me how to better myself and to act more mature. It's fun and it gets serious sometimes.''
Founder and director Tony McQuiller helped design the program in 2004.
"The main reason we do Boys to Men is to concentrate on education values,'' McQuiller said.
When students arrive at New Opportunities, they eat breakfast and engage in conversation about almost anything including their week at school or sports, said Emmanuel Meza, a Boys to Men staff member and graduate of the program. Then a lesson is taught. Meza recently talked to the group about going for job interviews and the things applicants should and shouldn't do. Another staff member, Christopher Tirado, 17, spoke about what it means to be a hero during a recent class.
After the lesson there's fitness time, usually spent outdoors if the weather is nice. If it isn't, the youths are inside playing cards and board games.
Getting into the program is no easy task. Young people in grades 6 through 12 are required to do a two-hour interview with McQuiller, who makes sure the young men have the attention span for the program. Participants have to maintain a C average. They also can't miss a morning class and their parents have to be involved in the program.
McQuiller recalled the interview he had with Luis Diaz, 17, of Wilcox Technical High School, cousin of Elijah Diaz. McQuiller said Luis Diaz's mother pleaded with him to allow her son into the program. During the interview, Luis Diaz looked at the lights and didn't seem engaged. McQuiller told him if he wasn't cut out for the first day of class, he wouldn't be allowed to come.
"Luis cut it the first day. He was having fun,'' McQuiller said.
Youths tend to think the program is going to be like school and it's not. It's designed to be the opposite.
"It's not a repeat of what happens Monday through Friday,'' McQuiller said.
One of the goals of the program is to have fun as well as become more socially adept, respectful and confident.
"It's not just a boring Saturday,'' Luis Diaz said.
Students are recruited through word of mouth or through the city's Department of Health and Human Services.
Ryan Novas heard about the program through peers, but also saw McQuiller last summer when the group was playing a basketball game. Novas became a participant and will be crossing over soon. Novas, 15, a sophomore at Platt, said McQuiller explained how the program could benefit him.
"It got me out of trouble,'' Novas said. "It helped me out and was a big change in my life. It's a good program.''
This year Novas' name appeared on the honor roll, something he had never seen before.
"It felt good,'' Novas said.
Nine years ago the program was much stricter. Boys to Men staff member Kendall Shepard said that when he was in the program boys had to take off their shoes and jewelry before entering the classroom. There was more of a focus on culture. Today that's not the case. The only dress code the students have to follow is no sagging pants. If pants are sagging, then Boys to Men is not the program for that young person, McQuiller said.
If staff sees their participants out and about or at the mall with sagging pants, they tell them to fix it.
"Sometimes they run the other way,'' McQuiller said.
Once participants are in the program, McQuiller, his staff director, Carolos Otero, and the other staff members are there to help 24/7. Otero has been with the program for the past nine years. McQuiller said he and Otero have both taken midnight and 3 a.m. phone calls. There have been emergency room visits and calls from family members.
"Carlos and I are always available,'' McQuiller said.
"Carlos and Tony live by their word,'' Elijah Diaz said.
*Pictured above is Tony McQuiller.