Last December, a youth program issued a call seeking 50 local men to go to Dallas' Dade Middle School for a mentorship breakfast to inspire boys. About 600 showed up, and the positive response made national headlines for a heartwarming viral story of men serving as role models to boys whose fathers aren't around to guide them.
Since then, the Rev. Donald Parish Jr., an organizer of the breakfast, has created a nonprofit called A Steady Hand devoted to mentoring school-age boys and young men. Not included in the program's reach are girls, who also can suffer without a father, and LGBTQ youth, who lack mentorship resources in North Texas.
The organizers and Dallas school district officials made clear last week at a planning meeting that the group is for boys and men first. Girls who need mentors will have to wait, Parish said, until the program is running smoothly. He admitted that some women’s groups are upset with him over that fact.
The program sprang out of the Carter High School football team. Parish, a 1995 alumnus of the school and a pastor at True Lee Missionary Baptist Church, is the team’s chaplain. Among the officials on hand at the planning meeting Thursday was Patrick Williams, the head football coach, who talked about how school-age boys behave better when they see grown men in the schools. They tuck in their shirts, and they fix their postures.
“Just your presence alone,” Parish said, will make these boys better.
The women at the meeting, including Carter assistant principal Natalie Crittendon, spoke earnestly about the importance of having male role models in the schools. But almost every time one of the male officials referenced women, he said something like, “To the women in the room, I don’t mean anything by this …” and talked about why men are best suited as leaders for young men.
“I’m talking to the men right now,” Dallas school district volunteer coordinator Thomas Garner said.
Parish, talking on the phone last week with the Observer, said that when he was first looking into doing mentor work, he asked high school seniors what they were thinking about doing after graduating.
“These kids had phenomenal grades, grades that were better than mine,” said Parish, who after Carter studied at the University of Texas at Austin. So many of the kids he asked did not see a path forward for themselves and were looking for jobs in fast food. “And I was not satisfied with that,” Parish said.
So he helped create a path forward for young men first. They’ll pave a path for girls later. Parish said the group will follow the school district’s lead on dealing with LGBTQ kids. That lead consists mostly of background checks for volunteers and the school’s anti-bullying policy, school spokeswoman Sandra Verduzco said.
Dallas ISD typically requires volunteer or mentorship groups to offer opportunities to all students. Organizations like A Steady Hand have to be vetted, both for their intentions and for each member's background. Students and mentors alike will fill out forms that will pair them based on interests, needs and expertise. The school’s anti-bullying policy specifically prohibits people from discriminating against one’s sexuality or gender expressions.
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If Parish’s high-profile group does not target queer kids, however, it could pose another boundary for the students, LGBTQ advocates say.
“I think these kids are so used to feeling they are not welcome, that if you don’t specifically say they are, then they assume they’re not,” said Jeanne Rubin, president of the North Texas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. “If they’re just saying they don’t discriminate, that’s not necessarily letting the kids know that they are there for them.”
Even Big Brothers, Big Sisters, one of the most prominent youth mentorship organizations in the nation, recently revamped the way it does things to better accommodate LGBTQ youth. Officials there have begun marketing directly to LGBTQ kids.
Parish, a Baptist preacher, said he won’t tolerate any homophobes in his program and that the mentoring is not religion-based. During the meeting Thursday, one potential mentor asked whether it was OK to give students religious advice. Parish, following the direction of school officials, told the man and the others gathered last week to shy away from personal beliefs and agendas when talking to the kids.