By Dan Campana
Evanston Police Officer Adam Howard choked up as he stood before a crowded room at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center in late January.
Howard paused, backed away from the podium and wiped his eyes. This rare public display of emotion by a veteran police officer was brought on not out of sadness, but from a place of pride and hope associated with 12 young men seated in front of Howard at the kickoff event for The Officer and Gentleman Academy’s second year.
Howard, who has spent 10 years with the department, told the middle- and high-school-aged boys who comprise the second academy class that he grew up “the wrong way” around drugs and gangs, only to be steered to the right path by his mother and grandmother.
That backstory and his experiences as a police officer motivated Howard to turn an idea for a community mentorship program for young men into reality in 2017. A successful first year – filled with support from the school district, city officials, local businesses and many others within the department – proved to Howard he was on to something. And, not only did it impact the program’s dozen participants, it’s left an impression on him, as well.
“I learn so much from you guys,” Howard said. “I look forward to seeing your positive growth and development.”
For 12 weeks, the gentlemen are given the tools to be successful young men for life. It starts with the simple act of learning to tie a necktie and launches into matter-of-fact guidance about decision making, etiquette, self-confidence, peer relationships, financial literacy and understanding the criminal justice system – including how to have positive interactions with law enforcement.
The group meets on Wednesdays to discuss those topics and focus on their academics, while Saturdays are reserved for outings to the movies, the Chicago Auto Show, museums and sporting events. Community service and family activities are also on the weekend agenda.
Det. Ken Carter, a drug and gang investigator with nearly 16 years on the job, understands all the challenges faced by this generation of young people – and how parents can use as much as help as possible to navigate the today’s terrain.
“We need these partnerships for the success of these young men,” Carter said, acknowledging it’s impossible to protect kids from everything. “We will provide for these young men a safe environment and prepare them for future success.”
Originally intended solely for middle school students, this year’s class features eight returning members, two of them freshman at Evanston Township High School. They learned so much from the academy last year that they wanted to come back and serve as mini-mentors describing high school life to their peers, Howard explained.
As Howard introduced them, each young man wearing a button down shirt with a tie stepped on stage to be acknowledged. Howard mentioned their interests and who the most important people – mothers, fathers, siblings and other relatives – were in their respective lives.
Some of those important people took to the stage to rave about the officers’ collective impact on their sons through the program.
“They’re not just there for show, they are genuine about their passion for these young men,” shared Natalie Lewis, who said she moved to Evanston with her son Noah for opportunities such as this. “I will always support this program.”
Maryl Rosen’s son Gabriel is back for a second year. Although Howard joked about Gabriel’s physical growth spurt, Maryl Rosen has seen her son grow in different ways – such as caring about the tie he wears and making sure his shirt is ironed.
“These kids are being seen in a way they want to be seen … instead of a way they could be labeled,” Rosen offered. “I love that these police officers are seeing these kids growing into young men. (The program) is coming from (the officers’) hearts.”
Evanston Police Chief Richard Eddington received praise from his officers and other speakers for his support of OGA.
“Chief has made this program a priority, giving us whatever we need,” Carter said.
In turn, Eddington said his philosophy involves finding good people and then getting out of their way when it comes to creating initiatives such as the one Howard brought to him for the academy.
“His idea, his concept; he is the champion and the spark plug of this,” Eddington said of Howard. “There has been such a positive response.”
Howard also doled out credit to Evanston/Skokie School District 65 representatives, Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty, members of the city council and others in the community who have backed the program for its difference-making approach to supporting the young men.
Rick Marsh, a former NBA player who has been active in the Evanston community and with its youth for three decades, testified to the power of mentoring and suggested none of the young men waste the opportunity before them.
“Take advantage of what you have with these folks … I guarantee you it’ll make a difference in your life,” Marsh commented. “This is exactly what we need in this community; this is what we need in every community.”