Helping at-risk youth: Dover’s Green Beret Project eyeing expansion

Steven Poole, retired Air Force, talks with Don’trez Dickson at the Simon Circle Recreation Center during the Green Beret Project. Special to the Delaware State News/Katrina Stubbs

DOVER — For Dontrez Dickson, the most important impact the Green Beret Project — an inner-city youth mentoring program started in Dover — has had on his life can be summed up in a few words.

“It keeps me off the streets,” he said.

However, for the all-volunteer, non-profit organization, keeping at-risk kids growing up in high-crime areas off the streets is only the first step. Program founder, Dover resident and Delaware National Guardsman Justin Downen said the Green Beret Project first reaches out to at-risk youth and builds a rapport with them through athletics — mainly basketball and Crossfit. Then volunteers assess needs and try to steer the kids toward career or academic opportunities to better their lives.

Perhaps the most important mechanic of the project, Mr. Downen notes, is its Green Beret-modeled “force multiplier” or “train the trainer” aspect.

“I was a part of the Iraqi counterterrorism force, and we went in and took Iraqis who didn’t know how to be soldiers, built a unit and got them to a point where they could train their own next generation and be self-sufficient,” said Mr. Downen.

“I know people are trainable, I’ve spent my life in the law enforcement and military and this model makes a lot of sense from a compassionate and economical standpoint. We invest time in someone like Dontrez so we can get him to the point where he can help us train younger kids. Force multiplication happens when we have 10 or so 16- to 18-year-old kids helping one another. I believe that’s how you really start to move the needle.”

Started in 2016, the project first put itself on the map when they took up residence in the old Simon Circle Boys & Girls Club. The building, nestled in the middle of a public housing cluster, was left vacant once the Boys & Girls Club moved over to the newly built Kent County Recreation Center. The Green Beret Project struck a valuable partnership with the Dover Housing Authority — who owns the building — and transformed it into what they now call Fort A.B.L.E. (Accessing a Better Life Experience).

Scott Kelly, the newly-minted executive director of the project, notes that since the organization is all-volunteer, partnerships with government agencies, local businesses and other philanthropic groups are what makes their efforts possible.

“We’re basically getting set up and forming relationships with the kids that are in most dire need, then helping to bring everyone to the table to make connections,” said Mr. Kelly. “Because we’re all working together, we’re so much more effective.”

“With each young person that walks in the door, we try to meet them right at their needs. Because of the network we’ve built, we can connect these kids to resources. If they’re homeless, we can connect them. If they’re trying to come up with a deposit for some vocational training, we can help. It can be anything.”

Green Beret Justin Downen interacts with kids at the Simon Circle Recreation Center during the Green Beret Project. Special to the Delaware State News/Katrina Stubbs

Partnerships with the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, Dover Police Department, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware National Guard, Delaware Department of Correction and funds from the Neighborhood Building Block Fund have been instrumental to their work, organizers say. A plethora of local private entities and churches have stepped forward to provide resources too.

Although much of the programming has a military discipline bend and encourages relationships between youth and members of law enforcement, the primary goal is to reduce crime and increase positive outcomes for participants, noted Mr. Kelly.

“Broadly speaking, a lot of our mentors come from law enforcement or the military, but we have plenty that come from other backgrounds — the idea is to expose the kids to positive role models because unfortunately many of them are essentially raising themselves,” he said.

“We don’t push military service or a career in law enforcement, but we help them explore what avenues might be available. Believe it or not, 75 percent of Americans 18-24 aren’t even eligible for military service because they’re obese, have a criminal record or the sub-standard academics. The question we’re trying to help these kids answer is: what can their futures look like? College? Career? Military service? If we can catch them young, and help keep them straight while guiding them toward what they’re interested in, we have a greater chance at success. So many doors slam shut instantly on these kids once they get a criminal record.”

The Green Beret Project’s primary touch point is through their network of after school programs — as many of the youths are most vulnerable in hours immediately after school lets out. Fort A.B.L.E. is open intermittently during these hours and expanded times during the summer for a wide variety of beneficial activities including tutoring, eating healthy meals, various presentations and mentorship programs and athletics centered around their indoor basketball court. Organizers say they also run a series of after-school program at William Henry Middle School and Central Middle School.

Owing to the nature of their lives, many of the children the project works with come and go, says Mr. Downen. But, when attendance is at its peak, the organization is directly impacting 100 to 150 kids with a half dozen or so actually filling the roles of mentors themselves. Mr. Downen hopes to snowball their momentum and greatly increase their reach in the near future.

Expansion plans

Already the project connects kids with job prospects and teaches work ethics, but Mr. Downen says he’s been canvasing local businesses and organizations in hopes of creating more opportunities. He believes one of the most powerful tools to safeguard at-risk youths is gainful employment.

To lay a foundation, Mr. Downen says they’ve worked with local agencies on their projects such as facility cleaning and maintenance at the Modern Maturity Center, construction with Habitat for Humanity and even the rehabilitation work originally needed to restore Fort A.B.L.E.

On a more advanced level, the project has partnered with an outfit called Cyber Streets to offer technical computer skills training that could potentially lay the groundwork for a high-value career in the growing field of cyber security and computer science.

Mr. Downen said the project has its eyes on offering more job opportunities for participants such as landscaping, car cleaning and house painting. They’re also working to add more consistency to stipends they’ve paid out in the past to the project participants who’ve become mentors.

The project’s distribution is growing rapidly as well. Through partnering with RIV Athletics and the non-profit West End Neighborhood House, the project now has a few programs in Wilmington. Independently operated groups based on the same model have also recently sprung up, or are in the process of starting, in Georgetown, North Carolina and West Virgina, organizers say.

In the coming months, Mr. Downen said the Dover Housing Authority will be making more space available to the project in Dover’s Manchester Square neighborhood so they can have access to the at-risk youth there.

Effect?

Mr. Downen said because the project is still in its infancy, results have been tricky to quantify with statistics. But anecdotally, he feels the evidence is hard to deny. During a snow storm over the winter, Mr. Downen said he saw the emotional impact his program had on Dontrez when he enlisted his help to shovel snow.

“During the winter we had a bad storm and even I didn’t feel like leaving my house, but I talked to Dontrez and said ‘let’s help the Housing Authority shovel the walks because they get overwhelmed during these storms,’” said Mr. Downen. “It was hard to get going, but by the end of the day, he was really proud of himself. He was out there working with other grown men and they were all telling him that they’d be happy to work alongside him any day and that he was a great help — you could just see the confidence bubbling up in him. He’s learning to work, it seems simple, but so many of these kids just were never taught that. Getting them involved in things like this gives them something positive to emulate.”

Even Dover’s police chief Marvin Mailey pointed to the program as an asset last year in combating the city’s high crime rate.

“The department has been taking steps to connect with the youth in our community with various outreach events such as our developing Police Athletic League, Green Beret/Fort A.B.L.E. project, increasing the presence of School Resource Officers in various schools, partnerships with local organizations-including faith based organizations, and events in our community,” Chief Mailey said at the time.

Mr. Downen notes the virtuous cycle the project seeks to get spinning runs on willing youth participants, enthusiastic volunteers and community/business partners. He urges anyone who fits those descriptions to learn more about the project by visiting thegreenberetproject.com or contacting them at (302) 336-8021.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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