News Local/State

Champaign’s Goal Getters Program Will Expand In Coming School Year

Mekel Brown inside a Unit 4 building holding up a Goal Getter T shirt.

Mekel Brown is a former participant and now a mentor in the Goal Getters program. The program is a project of Unit 4 schools, the city of Champaign, and the Champaign Community Coalition. Brown received a scholarship to attend Parkland College this fall. Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

Mekel Brown said he’s a different person today than he was a year ago. Brown is one of the inaugural participants in the Goal Getters program. The program is intended to reduce violence and provide leadership skills to youth in Champaign.

The initiative was created by the Champaign Unit 4 Schools, city of Champaign and the Champaign Community Coalition in the wake of an especially violent year in Champaign-Urbana. This fall, the program will expand to provide mentorship to students enrolled in Booker T. Washington Elementary and Edison Middle Schools.

Sheldon Turner, a Unit 4 employee and coordinator for Operation Hope — another youth-focused program —  leads the initiative. He said a December 2017 shooting that injured three teens immediately following a Central High School basketball game “really woke up a lot of folks.” Turner was at the game with his son. 

Turner said the program is targeted toward boys in high school, most of whom are African-American. Many of the participants have struggled in school, have connections to gang activities and have come into contact with the justice system.

And many of the young men, Turner said, have witnessed shootings of friends and family members. 

“Going through that process of being in the room with someone that got shot — that’s traumatic. And the poverty — over 90 percent of them have lived in poverty all their lives,” he said.

Those who participate in the program are required to sign a contract that says they’ll stay on top of their schoolwork and out of trouble. Turner said he’s in contact with the boys on a daily basis.

“If I’m in the school, I’m in their face,” he said. “I also have some of the hall monitors there checking in with them. They have to check in with us daily.”

The group as a whole meets several times a month, Turner said.  Participants receive academic and social-emotional support through the program. 

Earlier this month, the group went on a field trip to see a Cardinals game in St. Louis. They also made a pit stop in East St. Louis, where Turner grew up. He said he moved to Champaign at the urging of relatives who saw him heading down the wrong path. 

Turner credits his own life experience for his ability to connect with the young men.

“I was in their shoes,” he said. “I know everything they’re going through. Most of the stuff they’ve done, I’ve been a part of that. I was raised around that. Building a relationship with them is number one. It’s key. You have to be able to understand what they’re going through.”

The program began last summer, and Turner said he’s already seen positive results. He said Brown, for example, has “turned all the way around.” 

Brown graduated from Centennial High School earlier this year. He said the Goal Getters program changed his life for the better.

“The program got me a scholarship to go to Parkland (College) for construction management for two years. And I’m happy about that because I wasn’t even thinking about college before this group.”

“These young kids up out here, they really got a lot to provide for the community, and can do a lot, and can change a lot of people.” Mekel Brown, Goal Getters participant

Brown is one of three Goal Getters participants to receive Parkland College scholarships. Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen raised the money to help the young men attend the community college, Turner said. 

Before Goal Getters, Brown said he wasn’t a good student, and he didn’t think much about his future.

Now, he’s on a career path, and said Goal Getters is a sorely needed group. 

Brown said kids like himself “need somebody to help them, somebody they know to help them so they can feel successful. A lot of kids don’t have that helping hand to push them.”

This coming school year, Turner said Goal Getters participants will mentor young boys in Edison Middle School and Booker T. Washington Elementary School who have experienced similar circumstances, including violence and poverty. Mentorship provides a sense of responsibility, and it improves the community, Turner said. 

“Another good way of making them understand the importance of what this program is and what they can do with their life is giving them some credibility," he said. "Part of that credibility is: You're not going to be clowning and acting up if you're teaching middle school and elementary boys how to act."

With support, Brown said the boys in the Goal Getters program are capable of great things; They just need a little extra help.

“These young kids up out here, they really got a lot to provide for the community, and can do a lot, and can change a lot of people,” Brown said. “One out of a group of kids, he shows his friends something different, then they all say, ‘Let’s do this, too, because he’s doing good, he doing the right pathway’ —  and that’s all it takes.”

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines