STRIVE: Providing Hope For Dexter Youth Where None Exists

Former Naval aviator and flight school instructor, Joe Evans, spoke on how some Dexter students have found encouragement and hope in the program Students Taking a Renewed Interest in Education (STRIVE).

At a Dexter United Methodist Breakfast on February 10, Joe describes how STRIVE seeks to fill through mentorship the gaps some kids experience growing up: “These youth I work with in the STRIVE program are just like the youth I’ve been working with for years now with a couple of striking differences. One, they don’t have a sense of community. Two, they don’t have a sense of direction. They don’t have a course, a map or a compass. They don’t know where to go. Other than that, they’re just like everyone else.”

Before retiring from the Navy and taking a job as a pilot with Delta Airlines, Joe spent fifteen years working with young recruits on the flight deck of the USS John F Kennedy in the Persian Gulf. From there he taught at the naval flight school in Texas working with “the best of the best” as he describes the young recruits on their way to becoming naval aviators. Joe finished his career in the military at the University of Michigan working with students in the ROTC program.

STRIVE mentor, Joe Evans

He characterizes the all youth he worked with in the Navy as having a “sense of mission and togetherness,” and that they “had everything going for them” doing community service and a strong sense of teamwork. “These students,” Joe says “knew what they wanted to do in life. They had a sense of purpose.”

Joe was raised in what he describes as “a typical American home.” Like a lot of folks, he was fortunate enough to grow up having a role model, a sense of community, financial resources, health and wellness, and a sense of direction. But Joe says of STRIVE students “they don’t have that. Maybe it’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s all five that they don’t have and that’s what our STRIVE program is all about – helping those young people.”

STRIVE is all about getting them involved, engaged with “a sense of trust, a sense of community,” he says. “To get them to see that there’s real opportunities that exist out in the world and those opportunities might be theirs.”

Joe and his wife Stephanie were first drawn to settle in Dexter a few years ago after attending the Memorial Day Parade. “It seemed everyone was either in the parade or watching the parade,” Joe recalls. “We were blown away. I told my wife ‘Pinch me because I’ dreaming we’re in Mayberry.’”

The couple settled in and immediately immersed themselves in the community, beginning with the group that organized that parade. They joined Dexter Rotary and became involved with the scholarship committee. Reviewing scholarship applications, the committee looked at things like GPA and extracurricular activities. “We looked at some of the most incredible young people that this community had to offer and they will do great things in whatever community they belong to,” Joe said.

“These young people are going to do great things either with, or without our help,” Joe told the group. “They had resources, people around them helping them, a sense of direction and health and wellness.” The challenge for Joe and Stephanie became how to find the kids out there who really needed the help.

At about the same time, Dexter Community Schools Alternative Education program started up for kids falling through the cracks because of how the educational system is set up. This caught the Evans’ attention. What they quickly learned was that even though it seemed like every kid had been out there in that parade, not every youth was out there because they felt the parade wasn’t for them. “They don’t join dance team,” Joe says. “They don’t join sports club because all that stuff is for somebody else. That’s the way they feel. Those opportunities in life that you and I just take for granted, these kids don’t think they are for them.”

That’s what STRIVE is all about – letting those kids know they’re part of the community. There are opportunities for them and people ready to stand with them.

These kids had all shared certain experiences: They all came from broken homes. There was some degree of poverty and no sense of community around them for support. There was often some kind of illness in the family – physical, mental, addiction – that was holding them down. “They didn’t know where to go in life or how to get to the opportunities,” Joe said.

“These kids were starting out life a full lap behind most kids because of these significant barriers” Joe explained. “They don’t even know where the finish line is because they don’t have that direction in life. Same race as other kids. Same course but it’s significantly harder.”

“I didn’t have that disadvantage,” Joe says. “My boys don’t have that disadvantage simply because of the luck of being born in a different family.”

Many times it is difficult for residents of such an affluent area as Dexter to realize there is such a great need right in their midst when they look around and all they see are people doing well and on track. Joe shared the case of one young lady who hadn’t lived with her folks for a couple of years in poverty.

“She was lost, moving from family to family – relatives, friends, whoever she could get to take her in,” Joe told the audience and adds, “It was really a sad case.” He described the painful and awkward interview for the STRIVE program: She put her hand over her mouth when she spoke, no handshake. It was a difficult moment and she didn’t get much of an interview as a result.

Joe, Stephanie and others involved in the Rotary sponsored STRIVE program were nonetheless intrigued by this young lady as somebody they would love to help. From teachers and faculty, they knew she loved art.

The interviews were finished for that day and the STRIVE committee was packing up to leave when this young lady comes back into the room, no doubt prompted by a teacher. She didn’t say anything but just put her art portfolio on the table. “We took a look at it and I was blown away by the talent this young lady had,” Joe says. “An amazingly creative mind did this. It really struck home to me the talent that everybody has. What a shame to let that talent go unused.”

Along with Dexter’s Lion’s Club, STRIVE gave her a scholarship. She enrolled in Washtenaw Community College and got her first job ever. In this, her second year now, she is taking a speech class … by choice. Joe emphasizes that STRIVE is just one component of the support that creates the opportunity for this kind of forward motion. Organizations like Dexter’s Lion’s Club, other concerned citizens, and Dexter’s Alternative Education program combine together to create the community, support and resources these kids have been lacking, and that’s the point.

Another young man in STRIVE had recently written a poignant essay about his desire to be invisible. He didn’t want to be noticed. He felt he wasn’t like the other kids in school and couldn’t join in … anything. He avoided everything that involved other people. With the help of STRIVE mentorship, he has received a full scholarship to Washtenaw Community College and is interested in transferring to Wayne State to earn a pharmacy degree.

“It’s not enough to throw money at the problem,” Joe says. “You need mentors and a program. That’s where STRIVE comes in.”

For more information on Dexter Rotary’s STRIVE program, you can visit their website.

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