Journey to manhood, minus the detours

Mentoring program builds better men

By Karla Peterson 2:30 P.M.SEPT. 21, 2012


Boys to Men Mentoring Network co-founders Craig McClain (middle) and Joe Sigurdson (right) lead a meeting at the Spring Valley Middle School site, where the program is in its fourth year. — John Gastaldo

Pick a truth. Any truth. At the Boys to Men Mentoring Network, the journey to manhood starts there. No matter which end of the growing-up timeline you’re on.

“We start off our meetings by telling (the boys) the truth about ourselves. Some of us went to prison. Some of us did drugs. There isn’t one thing these boys are thinking about that one of us hasn’t done,” said Boys to Men co-founder Craig McClain.

“Then we ask them who wants to go next, and they’ll talk about gangs or drugs or hating their stepfathers. And we’ll say, ‘Is this what you want to do?’ And they’ll say no. We’ll ask about the consequences, and we’ll say, ‘Is this what you want?’ And they’ll say no. Then we’ll say, ‘Well, what do you want to do about it?’ We give them control over their lives.”

Co-founded in 1996 by McClain and Joe Sigurdson, the San Diego-based nonprofit is holding its third annual 100 Wave Challenge fundraiser Saturday in Mission Beach. Surfers who have pledged to raise at least $1,000 each will attempt to catch 100 waves in 12 hours, all to help Boys to Men help at-risk boys catch a break.

The Boys to Men organization teams up trained adult male mentors with groups of middle- and high-school boys in need of role models. First come the no-bull bull sessions, where footballs are tossed around and no topic is off the table. After 10 weeks of meetings, the boys are eligible for an “adventure weekend,” where camping meets consciousness-raising and the road to adulthood gets a little less rocky. All of the programs are free.

Over the years, Boys to Men programs have sprung up in more than 35 cities in seven countries. And it all started because two guys wanted to stop being guys and start being men.

A self-described “horrible kid” who spent 11 days in jail for stealing, McClain had grown into a respectable 40-something photographer, husband and father who did not feel nearly as upstanding as he looked. The Kansas native and San Diego transplant made his way to the ManKind Project, a nonprofit organization that uses “Warrior Training” weekends and therapeutic discussion groups to help men learn to take better care of their families, their communities and themselves.

The ManKind Project training worked so well for McClain and fellow seeker Sigurdson, they decided to spread the warrior wealth to the future men of the world. Hence, their first adventure weekend was born. And what an adventure that was.

“Halfway through Saturday morning, most of the boys wanted to go home,” the 60-year-old McClain said from his home office in La Mesa, where photos of his two children and five grandchildren share wall space with photos of his many Boys to Men charges. “It’s because we were telling them what to do. We were talking at them. Right then and there, we made the decision to let them talk.”

Now, the local Boys to Men has between 80 and 90 volunteer mentors working with about 390 kids in 10 sites in the county. At a Boys to Men meeting at Spring Valley Middle School earlier this week, so many boys and mentors showed up, there weren’t enough chairs for everybody. And there were so many stories on tap, 90 minutes wasn’t enough time to tell them all.

“Four years ago, there were three boys in this room, and we had to make them come here,” school counselor Bruce Crenshaw said of the program, which has been credited with raising GPAs and reducing disciplinary referrals. “Now we have 30 or more, because they know this is a safe place to go, and they come ready to talk. I’ve been a school counselor for 25 years, and this program has renewed my whole desire to stay in this profession, because I see what a difference this is making.”

My parents are splitting up. I can’t stop yelling at my sister. My dad is on drugs. My mom doesn’t want me. I’m stressed. I’m scared. I’m angry. From domestic violence to fights about homework, the boys couldn’t wait to step into the middle of the circle and let their truth flags fly.

There was high-fiving and football tossing and crying. There were boisterous group hugs and quiet meltdowns. And when it was over, when tears had been wiped on T-shirt sleeves and promises were made that the next meeting would include a dodge-ball game, there was a round of applause for the men and the boys and the truths that might just sent them free.

“That’s what we’re here for. Everybody gets it,” McClain said to the circle. “We don’t have to tell you guys anymore. We don’t have to say anything, do we?”