CAPE CORAL, Fla. — This is a quiet, upper-floor room at Hector Cafferata Elementary School in Cape Coral.
This school accommodates about 750 students from primary to fifth grade. The life lessons a small group of fifth-grade boys learn each week could be what they take long beyond stepping out of the halls for the last time next month.
The room is calm, concentrated, punctual because none of the ten students in the class this Monday morning missed the bell. It’s also respectful and even vulnerable, something we couldn’t expect from boys this age.
“I felt there was a need because often at this level there’s no father figure at home,” Dr. Marcus Jenkins, who founded this group, told “12STRONG.” , to help shape twelve boys into the best version of themselves. . “These kids need someone to let them know they care.”
Dr Jenkins stands at the front of the class, with Jordan Gibbs, and they go through soft questions with the boys, reminding them of the progress they have made throughout the school year and have still other challenges to overcome.
In speaking with the students, however, it becomes clear that this is not a one-way conversation between adults and students. These young men must also rely on each other. It’s a serious class, but one where the occasional high-pitched laughter seeps in, or the impromptu handshake across an aisle to offer support.
“Like my friend Cesar, he helps me a lot if I’m told,” said 12STRONG member Jayden Pierce. “He will make me happy.”
The classroom may be quiet, but that’s where the idea is to lay the groundwork for these young men to come back to those new life lessons when life gets bumpy.
“We are a family with this bond,” said Loudens Micard, another member of 12STRONG. “Learning to be a leader. Having people to talk to about how I feel and just like there’s learning or more knowledge that I can get from this group to impact my life.”
For about 15 minutes, the two men explained to the members how to speak properly, especially if they were going through a difficult time. Students raise their hands, offering a probing question. No one is ridiculed or judged. Perhaps a similar journey of understanding for each of the members makes this a truly safe space.
Then it’s time for a break from the mission field as the students reunite with Dr. Jenkins and Gibbs.
“We have a secret handshake that we have that they all know about,” Dr Jenkins said. “It’s called ‘ubuntu’ and ‘ubuntu’ is an African language for ‘all for one for all’ and they know it comes from a family of people who really care about them.”
This mission field is directly below.
An elementary school cafeteria can be a concerto of chaos.
It is active when students enter to join approximately 150 others. But never loud or out of control. The ten members of This Monday for 12STRONG walk the aisles, just saying hello or offering a line of encouragement to young students who eat the Monday special (mini burgers and curly fries) or bring their own from home.
Dr. Jenkins also offers kind words and nudges once or twice if one of the 12STRONG crew doesn’t turn up to serve.
As the excitement of another lunch period winds down, these ten fifth graders take out the trash to keep the Hector Cafferata Elementary School cafeteria as tidy as possible between groups.
This mission to serve and to keep a place as good as we find it.
“We’re going to continue to follow these kids and make sure they’re doing their part,” Dr. Jenkins said.