Green Beret Project in Dover turns its attention to next generation
Ka-Harri Jackson hasn't had the easiest life after losing his father at the age of 10 and having to move from house to house with his family just to survive.
Ka-Harri often found himself on the streets of Dover where more and more kids are being lured into a life of crime or pressured into joining gangs.
A program started by law enforcement agencies and Army Special Forces soldiers to take at-risk, inner-city youth off the streets and give them the support they might not get at home has given Jackson a new lease on his young life.
The Central Middle School eighth-grader is no longer falling prey to those inner-city streets and the constant pressure to cross the line. He credits the Green Beret Project with getting him out of that life and helping him find direction.
"The Green Beret Project is a big thing in my life now so I try to do my best," said Ka-Harri, who hopes to pay it forward someday as a mentor in the organization. "It has kept me out of trouble and has shown me that I can overcome anything."
Ka-Harri said the Green Beret Project has helped him keep his head up despite the obstacles he's faced and to look at life in an entirely different way.
"It’s not really tough; it’s motivation," he said." I don’t look at it as an obstacle; I look at it as something to build on."
A little more than a year ago, youth like Ka-Harri started going to the old Simon Circle Boys & Girls Club and welcomed the opportunity to play basketball and to have a place to hang out after the community center was reopened by the Green Beret Project in late 2016 with the help of many community partners.
For some of the youth, the newness wore off quickly, and attendance was hit or miss or they become no-shows altogether.
But for a core group of the kids, the Green Beret Project has continued to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others who now welcome the military-style discipline and the after-school help they receive from law enforcement officers and volunteers.
With a growing number of community partners, the project has expanded to not only include programming at Simon Circle, where 25-30 kids attend regularly Monday through Thursday but also to an after-school program at William Henry Middle School with 25 kids and another at Central Middle School with 28 youth.
Many in the community believe it could be an answer to reducing the big-city crime that has a chokehold in this small city.
In 2016, the Dover Police Department made 304 juvenile arrests for crimes such as theft, possession of marijuana, burglary and assault; and the more serious crimes of dealing drugs, armed robbery, rape and the use of firearms.
Shan Green, the principal of Central Middle School, describes her school as an inner-city school in a very small town. But she said the school and the city are starting to see larger-city problems.
Green said a lot of Central's kids are spending a little too much time on the street because they don't have much else to do. School ends and they go off and find things to do, and oftentimes those things are not very helpful to them, she said.
"Unfortunately, I have attended more student funerals in the last year than I ever should have as an educator," Green said. "But if we don't start building more programs [like the Green Beret Project] we could lose a lot more students. [This program] is saving lives."
The Green Beret Project started as an idea in July 2016 to bring military and law enforcement communities together to implement military-inspired training programs targeted to Dover's at-risk youth.
Organizers say the number of inner-city children who need structure, opportunity and a consistent, stabilizing presence in their lives is staggering. They believe mentorship programs have incredible power to improve the lives of children, and in doing so, improve communities as a whole.
With the old Boys & Girls Club in the Simon Circle neighborhood of Dover as the backdrop, the project has since flourished and has helped bring a community together with the focus of making the lives of inner-city youth better by both inspiring and enabling them.
Stories like Ka-Harri's are commonplace at Fort A.B.L.E., the name given to the renovated community center. A.B.L.E. stands for Accessing a Better Life Experience, and to everyone involved in the program it seems appropriate, they say.
Brieonna Brown wants to leave the mean streets of Dover's inner-city behind someday and knows the only way to get there is to better herself as a person, work hard in the classroom and to avoid the constant pressure of gangs and crime.
With seven brothers and sisters, the second-oldest sibling has her hands full helping her mother cook dinners and lending a hand raising the family that lives in the Simon Circle neighborhood.
But Brieonna knows in order to follow her dream of being a doctor or a nurse, she needs the skills she receives being a part of the Green Beret Project. In her short time at Fort A.B.L.E., she has turned hard work and a natural penchant to work with younger kids into a leadership role.
"Being in the Green Beret Project, it takes a lot of skills and strength to be a leader because for me being a girl, everybody doubts me and my skills," said Brieonna, a sophomore at Dover High School. "We're all about coming together and helping the community and helping younger kids provide a better life for themselves. It helps keep them off the streets, out of trouble and out of jail."
A key part of the Green Beret Project is training and equipping participants with the skills and confidence to become leaders in their communities. In Dover, student leaders have mentored younger children in the computer lab, out in the community and helped coach them during basketball clinics.
That morphed into an opportunity for these leaders to learn about health and nutrition and to exercise on a regular basis. Exercise and nutrition play a key role in the Green Beret Project.
Along with a handful of students deemed to be the next generation of leaders in the organization, law enforcement officers and other volunteers exercise alongside the youth at Fort A.B.L.E., CrossFit Dover and within the Capital School District.
Rob Easton, a program manager for the Green Beret Project and a CrossFit trainer, said the payoff for the older student leaders is working out at CrossFit Dover and then taking what they have learned and passing it on to the younger kids.
Easton said in the Green Beret Project, that is referred to as force multiplication, a strategy on which the organization has built its foundation.
"We're taking some of our kids in high school and running a train-the-trainer program," he said. "We're in our third week now with owner George Dobbins and our goal is to train the kids to mentor the younger ones. In essence, we're training these kids to be squad leaders."
Easton and the others believe that with physical adversity comes mental toughness and they think the students can learn a lot about themselves through the physical adversity of the training program.
Dontrez Dixon, a freshman at Dover High School, has bought into the CrossFit theory. While he says it is physically and mentally challenging, it's a necessity.
"I want to teach the younger kids as much as I can, whether it’s basketball or CrossFit or anything else," said Dontrez, who lives in Dover's Manchester Square neighborhood. "I want to inspire younger kids and kids my age to come to programs like this instead of being on the streets. I used to be out there heavy and it’s not the place to be."
The Green Beret Project recently reached a milestone when organizers were able to pay the older student leaders for running the community center, mentoring the younger kids and overseeing community outreach projects. The money came in part from the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, the Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund, the Masonic Charities of Delaware, and others.
Brieonna and Dontrez were among nine high school and three college leaders who were recently paid for their efforts and dedication to the Green Beret Project.
But that wasn't all they received. Organizers thought it was important for the student leaders – many of which were receiving a paycheck for the first time – to receive financial training. Before they received their checks, NCALL, a nonprofit organization based in Dover that specializes in affordable housing development, education and lending, provided instruction in financial management.
With a growing number of willing leaders and youth, the Green Beret Project has completed numerous community service projects, run a successful summer program, and operated after-school programs at Fort A.B.L.E., William Henry Middle School and Central Middle School.
But that's only the beginning, organizers say.
In the coming year, it is anticipated that the Green Beret Project will continue to expand the number of student leaders, making it possible to complete more community service projects and create more opportunities for youth, not only in Dover but also in places like Georgetown and Wilmington where projects are already underway.
"If they weren’t here, I don’t know where I would be right now," said Jaheim Harrell, a seventh-grader at Central Middle School who calls Fort A.B.L.E. his second home. "Basketball-wise, how I carry myself, they’ve shown me the way. This is keeping me out of trouble and helping me a lot with my grades. It’s a family."
For more information about the Green Beret Project, visit www.greenberetproject.org.
Reach Jerry Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JerrySmithTNJ.