Waite student James Frankforther, left, and Bowsher's Randall Pryor listen to a speaker during the Boys to Men conference at the University of Toledo.
The Rev. Janice Carson whooped into a microphone to energize the crowd — made up of mostly youngsters who were probably out of bed earlier than they’d have liked — before her.
“You are all here to save our sons,” she shouted. “Save our sons.”
The Rev. Carson, a lifelong Toledoan, was leading the charge for the fifth annual Boys 2 Men Conference, hosted at the University of Toledo, hoping to inspire an auditorium of boys to make wise decisions and to encourage the men in the room to help them.
Growing up without a father can be tragic for children, the Rev. Carson said, saying children in fatherless homes are more likely to perform poorly in school, be violent, or run away.
“Since 1986 the United States has led the world in fatherless families,” the Rev. Carson said. “Today, we’re turning that around.”
Part of conveying the message of success at the Saturday morning conference was having successful black men address the young crowd of mostly young and black boys.
“People think we don’t have hope,” said Mayor Mike Bell, who grew up on Stickney Avenue in North Toledo.
The crowd of young people, he said, made him feel hope.
“We need you,” the mayor said. “You are our future.”
Most of the young people in attendance were members of the Toledo Public Schools’ Young Men of Excellence program.
The keynote speaker, whose stirring remarks elicited a standing ovation, was TPS interim Superintendent Romules Durant.
“We are in a state of emergency,” Mr. Durant said, citing the book State of Emergency: We Must Save African American Males by Jawanza Kunjufu.
Mr. Durant grew up with a fatherless father, he said. Living without that male role model had an impact on the elder Mr. Durant.
Growing up in New York, he joined a gang and, at a time when tattoos were more taboo, he inked his loyalty to the gang onto his forehead.
He spent years in the gang — dropping out of school and surviving a shooting.
Mr. Durant’s father moved to East Toledo, where he had three children — when Mr. Durant’s sister was born, his father was sitting in a bar, he said.
He told a man near him that his daughter would be a doctor. The man laughed.
“Your daughter is going to be a doctor, but you’re in here?” the man said.
Mr. Durant’s fatherly expectations for his own life changed.
He built his family’s foundation on football: him coaching, his wife working with cheerleaders, the boys playing football, and his daughter on the cheer squad.
He gave his children structure and discipline. Every morning he’d wake the kids at 5:30 and send them out for a 1.5-mile run. It was all about channeling their energy to good use.
Mr. Durant challenged the men in the room to be a positive presence in the life of young people, to “be an intervention to change their lives.”
Panelists, who later led group discussions, included Dr. Airron Richardson, a Toledo native who is now managing partner and the associate medical director for an emergency medicine group in Indiana; Neail Goodloe III, director of the Toledo Youth Choir; Mark Robinson, director of field education and an instructor in the department of social work at Lourdes University; and Brian Hayward, Sr., a community activist.
The men discussed their struggles — whether it was substance abuse, homelessness, crime, or years of challenging schoolwork — hoping to motivate their young audience.
“We want people to know that we are stepping in to make a difference as H.E.R.O.E.S. To stop this kind of thing,” the Reverend Carson said.
“We want kids to know you’re not just going to drive your way around your life. We are concerned and we care about you.”