One by one, fourth- and fifth-grade boys in a new after-school group at Dixie Magnet Elementary stood at the front of the room and explained how they had shown leadership in the past week.
One boy had defused a bullying incident; other boys helped kindergarten students with schoolwork and taught basketball skills to their friends. Still another had asked his mother to give money to a homeless person they met.
"We want everyone to be a leader," said the group's mentor, Gerald "Geo" Gibson, an intervention specialist for the Fayette County Attorney's Office. "This is probably the best group of little kids that I've worked with."
At a recent meeting, the boys told Gibson what they had struggled with in 2014. Science, said one. Reading, said another. Then, in a move that led Dean of Students Cheri Presley to praise them for being brave, some boys said they had struggled with attitude, listening, focus, and respect, and wanted to do better. They set goals for 2015. Presley said they were gaining self-confidence.
Dixie is the only school in Fayette County currently using the program developed by Gibson called OMAC (Operation Making A Change). Gibson, who lived in Illinois and Wisconsin before moving to Lexington in 2010, said he saw the need to help young men from all walks of life understand the impact of their decisions. He developed his program, he said, because he had lacked strong male leadership as a child and had made poor decisions that resulted in his serving time in prison.
His grades weren't good. "I ran with the wrong people, made some decisions that wasn't going to be helpful to me in the future," Gibson said. "But I managed to turn it around. I took all that energy and knowledge to try to help other kids not make the same mistakes that I did."
Gibson said he was thankful to Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts for helping him bring his program to the forefront. Gibson at first volunteered at Roberts' office as he took his program to young men in the community. He then was hired full-time. In the Dixie program, Gibson works with former Lexington police officer Greg Howard, who also works for the Fayette County Attorney's Office as an interventionist.
The two men visit the boys at Dixie for a half-hour on Tuesdays.
Aside from the meetings, the boys earn fun days and camping and field trips, and the right to wear T-shirts with the OMAC logo. Presley said the boys support each other and have a sense of family.
Presley said she contacted Howard and Gibson last spring because she had heard about Gibson's program.
Howard said they tried a pilot program at Dixie last year for six weeks with about six boys and fully implemented it at the school this year. There are now about 19 in the group, and more children are asking how they can join. They are learning basic social skills such as the need to shake hands with people they meet.
"When you are talking to a person or a class, what is the one thing that we try to teach you to have?" Gibson asked the boys at the recent meeting.
One of the boys correctly answered, "eye contact."
Gibson talked to the boys about the importance of showing respect. The boys have started taking on responsibilities at the school such as raising the flag.
School social worker Jodie Carper said the boys, "are being mentored by great men, and then they (the boys) are mentoring younger children, which is an amazing story.''
"The staff at Dixie have identified these boys as being potential leaders in this school," Presley said. "Dixie as well as most other elementary schools have primarily female staffs. To bring men into the picture and mentor these boys, I feel like it's been a huge success."
"We are trying to focus on the positive and on what each child has to offer," she said.