C4: At the HELM of Mentoring in Birmingham, Alabama

It’s a typical Tuesday for most of the sixth through eighth grade students at Smith Middle School on the east side of Birmingham, Alabama; however, for a select group of young men at this middle school,  what’s being taught to them goes beyond just your typical subjects of algebra or English. They are being exposed to the invaluable lessons that every young man should learn; manhood and leadership. And it doesn’t just stop there. These traits are just two of the four foundational principles focused on by C4 Mentoring, the program that these young men are a part of.

Recently established in 2015 by Birmingham residents Leaveil Binion and Jermaine Johnson, Cultivate 4 (C4) Mentoring Program was created to focus on mentoring young Black men living in underserved communities that range from the 6th to 8th grad. With a mission to inspire, empower and encourage these young men to unlock their true passion in life through cultivating its four underlying principles: Heritage, Education, Leadership and Manhood. With the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” carrying more meaning now than it may ever have, I wanted to take time and speak with Leaveil and Jermaine, the men that have brought that statement to life in their community through founding such an impactful program. I felt that it was important to get a better understanding as to why this was such an important initiative for them to pursue, what they hope to accomplish through the program and what plans they have for the future.

Okay so, tell me a little about yourself.

Leaveil: I’m originally from Hartford, Connecticut. Moved here to Birmingham when I was 13 to live with my father. I’m 35 years old, married with kids. I work at Allstate in leadership. Military background, Army. Been on 3 deployments and currently serve in National Guard.

Jermaine: Was born in Chicago, raised here in Birmingham. I’m 33 years old. I’m a father of a 7 year old son. I graduated from Huffman Magnet High School and for my Bachelor’s from Alcorn State where I played football. I’m currently working in management at Enterprise.

How did the idea for C4 come about?

Well, we already knew each other but we were in this Facebook group; Unification Project where the members of the group would meet up and talk about different ideas, brainstorming and it kind of just happened. The idea was mentioned and we just ran with it and before we knew it we were in the school talking with the principal, ready to get things started. Pretty much just meant to be. And it works well, because we complement each other in terms of our working dynamic, so I think that helped get things moving as fast as they did. 

Why 6th to 8th graders, meaning what is it about that age group that made you decide to make that your target group?

We wanted to focus on that group because it’s a very pivotal time in a young man’s life. They’re trying to figure out the direction they’re going to take, a crossroads. Also, a lot of middle school kids deal with a lot of peer pressure, bullying and self-esteem issues and we wanted to help equip these young men with the tools to rise above these things and groom them to be great leaders in high school and then later in the community. 

What is the significance of HELM in relation to the program?

HELM is important in a couple ways. The helm of the ship is what steers the ship and it also means to steer; so for us, HELM: heritage, education, leadership and manhood are the tools that will guide these young men throughout life. Our goal is to help them figure out who they are as individuals and unlock what it is they’re passionate about and we do that through cultivating these four principles. We use these principles as the foundation of our curriculum and any lessons we teach, conversations we have, or activities we engage in, we’re going to tie them back to those four principles.

How does the mentor, mentee relationship work?

That’s something that we think makes C4 a little different than some other mentoring programs. We wanted to create a family dynamic and an environment for these kids to be themselves. We wanted to do it this way so that the kids could figure out for themselves which mentor they clicked with the best and so that in the event a kid’s mentor couldn’t be there, they wouldn’t feel left out. So we want to make sure that the kids interact with all the mentors and know that they have the support of all of us. A huge factor to the mentor, mentee relationship is communication. We want these kids to be able to have real, open conversations about what’s going on in their lives and what they’re going through. When we’re having a discussion and we ask a question, we’re not looking for that perfect, essay response, we want them to be real with us and we’re real with them. We’re in contact throughout the week, phones, texting, whenever they need us and we meet weekly, all mentors and mentees and just talk. We’ll bring in different speakers or discuss different topics.

What’s the most important thing you hope the young men going through the program take away from it?

It goes back to HELM. We want the kids to understand the importance of knowing who you are as an individual and take pride in that, and in order to truly understand and figure out who you are, you have to know where you came from, your heritage and your history. These are young kings and we want them to understand and learn what that actually means. To know that education doesn’t stop when you leave the classroom and the power education has in life. We want them to understand that leadership isn’t just a role but that they are a leader at all times and to act with that mindset and finally what being a man and manhood is really about. Being a man’s man isn’t about being tough but being a role model. And most importantly, we just want these kids to find the happiness that comes out of finding your passion and purpose in life.
What has been the response/support you’ve received from the community?

The community has been real supportive of what we’re doing with these kids and in the community and they see it as a great way of us building up the community. It was definitely something that was needed and we hear that from a lot of folks throughout the community. The school has been overwhelmingly supportive. They’ve helped provide us with the resources we need to make this happen and we’ve been able to develop a great working, collaborative relationship. The parents really love what we’re doing. We’d love to get more parent participation, but we understand that between work and all that it may be a little hard, and we’re working on finding ways to make it easier for them to get more involved.

How many mentors and mentees are currently participating in C4?

Currently, we have about 30 middle school kids, ranging from 11 to 13 years old and 6 high school kids, freshmen, that started with the program last year and are still involved. As far as mentors go, we have 6 mentors that rooted in the program and then others who help out and get involved when they can.

What are the requirements to get involved with C4, for the mentees and the mentors?

For the kids, their parents have to sign them up. We also get help from the faculty and they talk to us about kids they think would benefit from the program. We have them fill out a Pre-Assessment form just to get an idea of where their heads are at. As far as mentors go, the only things we require are dedication and the desire to improve the quality of life of the boys. We aren’t seeking any particular type of men, a professional or business minded or anything like that. We’re just looking for everyday guys that are willing to spend time with the kids and show them support.

What are the next steps? Do you have plans to expand the program?

Expand! Ideally, we want to expand the program throughout the Birmingham City School system and continue working with middle schoolers. Once we get the program established in that way, we want to look towards expanding to the high school. The program is currently boys only and as of right now and the 5-year plan, that will continue to be the focus. We want to get this program fully established and then we may think about doing something for the young ladies; but, if there were any women that wanted to join us to head a program geared towards girls, we’d fully support that initiative.

Okay, last question. From a personal perspective, what has C4 given you? What has the program, starting it and being in the trenches, done for your personal growth?

Leaveil: I truly believe my purpose in this world is to be a leader for my people. Once I accepted that purpose, it was important that it lived in every aspect of my life. C4 was just that final piece for me. I have always had the heart to do for others and I never knew where that would lead me. Everything in my life has prepared me for this. Everyday I strive to be a better leader in every part of my life. From my personal life, my military life, and my corporate career. C4 has given me the satisfaction of being able to leverage each and everything I’ve learned and place it all in the greatest investment we have in this world, our youth.

Jermaine: It’s definitely made me a better dad and person. It’s made me more accountable for my actions and made me more aware of things in the community and why. All that has lead me to see more than just the surface in all situations and look deeper at things, learning that life’s all about perspective. It’s also allowed me to find my passion. I’ve had a lot of good jobs but I wasn’t fulfilled. I started coaching football and started building a rapport with the kids. I switched focus and started management and developing myself as a leader but I was missing that aspect of helping kids and I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing. C4 lets me do that. I can’t imagine doing any job for 30 years, unless its C4.

After speaking with Leaveil and Jermaine, and even after typing up this article and reading it through, it’s apparent that this isn’t just providing an opportunity for development for these young men but these gentlemen have a personal stake in this fight. They both wonder about where they could’ve been or what they could’ve accomplished had they had someone helping them at this age. They see themselves in every mentee in the program. They both know the impact that this program can have in the lives of these young men and in turn the impact that those who participate in the program can have on their own communities and the world. For them, it wasn’t enough to just point out the issues that Black men face; they needed to and continue to be active problem solvers and change makers in the community with hopes of instilling in these young men the tools necessary for them to do the same. C4 Mentoring is definitely at HELM of mentoring in Birmingham, Alabama and I look forward to seeing this program continue to grow and get the support it so rightfully deserves.


For more information about the program and how you can get involved, contact:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Cultivate4Mentoring

Instagram: @c4_mentoring              Email: info@cultivate4.org

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