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Spotlight Iowa City: UI student reaches out to teens

BY NORA HEATON | FEBRUARY 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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Though an articulate man when it comes to expressing Boys2Men’s mission, Rodney Anderson knows better than to talk a lot when the ribs are waiting.

The greeting that met a group of boys was simple: “Our foundational rule is respect. Now grab some ribs.”

Sixteen teenage boys, some still sweaty from playing basketball in the gym downstairs at the Robert A. Lee Community Rec Center, rushed to fill their plates on Feb. 4.

The boys, ages 12 to 17, meet at the center for Boys2Men, a mentoring program that Anderson, a 20-year-old UI junior, founded to help empower adolescent boys coming into manhood. Since September 2009, they have gathered each week to talk about what motivates them and what they struggle with.

For many of the boys from Iowa City’s Southeast Side neighborhoods — who make up the majority but not all of the group — those struggles are about battling the stereotypes and prejudices reinforced by some who believe the area is low-income and crime-ridden.

Anderson’s family moved to Iowa City from Chicago when he was 13. As the only black student in his classroom, he still remembers one classmate’s hurtful words: “You’re stupid because you’re black.”

Ever since, Anderson said, he’s worked to prove doubters wrong, passing on that mentality to the kids he mentors. “Take it as an opportunity,” he said. “Take that negativity, and make it your fire. Drive yourself to be better.”

The kids of Boys2Men have accepted that challenge. Week to week, they have built relationships and grown, said Talia Meidlinger, who works with the group. She is also a coordinator of the Iowa City-based Children of Promise Mentoring Program, which pairs adult role models with kids who have a parent in the penal system. Many of the boys are a part of both groups.

“Rodney’s approach is really great, because he’s young enough that he can connect to these guys,” Meidlinger said. “I think he also understands how important it is for them to be educated on what it is to be respectful men, and he really creates a safe place for all these guys to come together.”

Anderson balances his volunteering with 18 semester hours, a full-time job at JCPenney, and a family that includes fiancée Jeannea Williams, a UI junior, and their 9-month-old son, Romel. It’s a busy lifestyle, but every week, he finds time to meet with Boys2Men and even offers to help tutor those who want to improve their grades.

Brian Payne, a 15-year-old freshman at West High, said he appreciates that positive attitude. He has been coming to Boys2Men meetings for around three weeks now.

“I can see a lot of my friends there,” he said. “Everybody’s respectful, and you learn a lot.”

This past week’s meeting had a loose classroom feel, as they discuss the lesson at hand, black inventors. In some cases, these inventors produced creations while still enslaved. This demonstrates, Anderson told the boys, that anything is possible with determination.

“I believe that ultimately, when someone tells you that you can’t, you can,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’re going to say, ‘I can do it; I am somebody.’ ”


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