“No boy dreams of growing up without a dad, dropping out of school, doing drugs or going to prison, yet millions do,” Boys to Men USA.
The number of US urban fatherless children is astounding – 43%. And, a mere 1% of the 43% have a relationship with their father. According to Journey Men – a male mentoring nonprofit organization located in Asheville, North Carolina – that number translates into a staggering 24.7 million children.
A profound phrase Frederick Douglass said echoes in every humanitarian’s ears across the nation from Asheville to Santa Rosa, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Truth in that statement resonates for Boys to Men North Bay pioneer Shannon Leach because he has never known his own father. Boys to Men is a mentoring organization that offers young men a safe environment to share their stories with their peers. Not having a relationship with your father creates an inner struggle difficult to overcome on your own.
Eight years ago the Sierra School of Sonoma County in Bennett Valley, a for-profit organization, offered Shannon a job as a landscaping mentor teaching troubled kids about gardening. Shannon said, “I learned very quickly how I was able to connect with the kids in a real way. Not only did I experience gratification, but the kid’s gratitude exceeded my expectations. Their eagerness to learn was evident, and I saw the benefits immediately.”
From that moment forward he became hooked on bonding with kids who are hungry for a human connection. Shannon said, “During my time as a landscaper and gardener, I saw the benefits of taking care of the earth in a healthy organic way. However, I look back now and realize despite my spiritual connection with the land, I felt a void. I actually felt vain growing flowers for privileged people.”
By the end of the day he felt linked to the land yet, at the same time, he felt disconnected with human nature. “Eventually,” Shannon said, “I realized a kinship with the soil wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to connect with my community in a more meaningful way.”
Shannon’s experience through the Sierra School opened the door for him to work first hand with troubled teens from organizations like Valley of the Moon, juvenile hall and even wealthy family kids who may have some type of dysfunction in the home.
Misfortune can strengthen a person’s fortitude if they are guided down the right path, which is the case with Shannon shepherding Boys to Men North Bay. His own fatherless experience, a spiritual connection with the land and a need to help others find emotional strength is the guiding force for his humanitarian endeavor.
Shannon’s epiphany transpired when he signed up for a Boys to Men Right of Passage camp mentorship program in southern Oregon last fall. In all cultures, there is some type of Right of Passage that initiates young men into manhood. The primary goal is to teach young men to become open-hearted, vulnerable and loving.
The Toltecs – a pre-Aztec civilization say their warriors shed the biggest tears and cry the loudest cries. This ancient Mesoamerican culture believed the last thing a warrior should be afraid of is his own emotions.
When asked if Shannon cried during the Right of Passage camping trip in southern Oregon he said, “Yes, actually, I cried, maybe I cried more than I should have, but that’s what it’s all about – getting in touch with your emotions in order to find out who you are.” The Right of Passage experience helps set these boys on a fresh path.
After Shannon’s emotional journey as a staff camp mentor with Boys to Men, he felt compelled to join a local Sonoma County chapter. With a little research, he found Boys to Men didn’t have a Sonoma County branch.
This realization inspired Shannon to launch the first Boys to Men in the North Bay. The project is currently plowing full speed ahead.
The program’s intention is to first create peer counseling groups within schools directed by mentors who are trained to facilitate the Boys to Men curriculum.
Over the last nine months, Shannon has orchestrated a dynamic team who is working closely with Boys to Men USA, Chairman, Michael Bonahan and Boys to Men Bay Area, Executive Director, Stephan Hermann to create autonomy for the North Bay branch. The Boys to Men leaders understand the North Bay is a progressive large geographical area and want to give Shannon’s team the open space they need to create a program that suits the community. This freedom allows the program flexibility to incorporate elements like meditation, yoga and the LGBTQ community. Boys to Men North Bay’s design is to be inclusive. Graciously, Bonahan and Hermann have given Shannon’s team the green light.
Shannon said, “I am creating an army of volunteers for outreach programs who will connect with, I hope, every junior high and high school in the North Bay. If we can get key county schools on board, I feel they will create the pathway needed to get the ball rolling in our region.”
When asked how Shannon plans to facilitate community outreach and organization awareness he said, “You’d be surprised at how many people get involved with this type of mentoring. During the Right of Passage weekends, there is a higher ratio of volunteers to kids. The number ratio alone reflects a commitment to the kids. The kids feel this energy and thrive with it. Most of the young men who participate in the Boys to Men Right of Passage program go on to become mentors themselves.”
Shannon’s team is currently in the process of setting up the groundwork for the program’s fiscal sponsorship. The plan is to have weekly meetings with peer groups. Shannon feels meeting on a weekly basis gives kids a place to check in and refuel. When more than a week passes by, emotions get stuffed, so this type of regularity helps the kids open up.
Serendipity isn’t just for lucky people, it can happen on all levels and in unexplainable ways. All it takes is for someone like Shannon Leach to plant the seed and nurture the being.
~ by Courtney Paige
**Disclosure: Boys to Men Bay Area is supported by Boys to Men USA and the Stupski Foundation**