Khalil Westbrook-Grant is a basketball-playing, lawn-mowing, solid grade-earning 17-year-old.
In other words, Khalil Westbrook-Grant is a rather typical kid. A good kid. A focused kid with one more year of high school and dreams of playing college hoops. But turn back the clock a decade and see a different Khalil.
See an angry kid. A prone-to-fighting kid. An always-in-detention kid.
Every adult in his life, from his teacher-mother to his grandfather, tried to steer Khalil straight. Khalil still popped off at little things, still started fights, still got in trouble.
Then a mentor named Paul Bryant said something that got through. Bryant told Khalil that if he didn't find an alternative to anger, Khalil would wind up like other kids Bryant knew: dead or in jail.
That was blunt talk from a man who led an inner-city leadership program that taught you how to shake someone's hand, make small-talk, read stock market tables and tie a tie.
Khalil was in the program at the time. He hated wearing the program uniform of navy blazer, khaki pants and red necktie, but he did it, anyway.
He hated hearing what Bryant said. But he listened, anyway.
“It actually changed my life,” Khalil said softly. “I decided to look in the mirror.”
Khalil is telling me this at a dinner somewhat in his honor.
The event was part farewell to Bryant, who has moved to Atlanta.
It was part passing of the torch to a pair of young men who are taking over the urban leadership program that Bryant started in 2005.
And it is part celebration of how the right investment in young, inner-city boys can pay off long-term.
Khalil, joined by a handful of his blazer-and-tie-wearing peers, was living proof of that.
In 2005, Bryant recruited Khalil to join what was then called the Wesley House Leadership Academy.
Wesley House was a social-service nonprofit in north Omaha started by the United Methodist Church. Bryant was a north Omaha native who made a name for himself in football (University of Nebraska at Omaha), in business life (Gallup and First National Bank) and in north Omaha nonprofits.
Both the organization and its new leader were trying to recast themselves as something new. Bryant had recently left a failed business venture with former football buddy and furniture dealer Rod Kush.
Wesley House, which at the time was serving youths in the court system, was struggling to keep its doors open.
At the helm, Bryant retooled the organization and narrowed its focus to an after-school program for boys. He promoted a leadership curriculum, instituted a dress code, and kept the same boys involved year after year.
“Our vision was to make it cool to be smart, that smart people win,” Bryant said.
Bryant left Wesley House in 2010 and taught a similar leadership course, called Leadership Institute for Urban Education, at Alice Buffett Middle School and the Douglas County Youth Detention Center.
He kept that initial Wesley House cohort together for a Saturday program he started, called College 4 Kids. The boys, including Khalil and Bryant's son P.J., were among some 31 boys who would spend six hours at UNO every other Saturday.
They talked college prep and the business world in the mornings; they played basketball in the afternoons.
The boys, who had entered the program together at ages 8 and 9, are now 16 and 17. They were attending high schools throughout the metro. They were doing well and were excited about their future.
When I asked what difference the program had made for them, they responded with rave reviews.
“It made me a better person,” said a 16-year-old named Tony Outlaw.
“I want to coach and start a program of my own so I can give back,” said Austin Greenfield, also 16.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“It showed me how to be a leader and search for my purpose,” said Damaion Faulkner.
Not everyone stuck with it. Three of the original Wesley House kids were shot in the past year. Two of the three died.
“I truly believe if these young men would have stayed in the program,” Bryant said, “they would probably still be here today.”
Bryant is angry about that.
The two who died, Calvin Cotton, 15, killed in May 2012, and D'Marco Pope, 17, killed last month, were “talented and were gifted,” Bryant said. “Now they are just statistics for the city's homicide record.”
He said the Leadership Institute program reduced suspensions at Buffett Middle School and said he hoped it played a role in a dropping recidivism rate at the Douglas County Youth Center.
He is expanding it to other programs: the South Omaha-based Victory Boxing Club, the Butler-Gast YMCA in north Omaha and a Southern Sudan youth group.
Now Kevin Lytle and former Husker cornerback Cortney Grixby will run the Leadership Institute in Omaha.
Bryant will still be involved from Atlanta. He plans to launch the program there and return regularly to Omaha to see how it's working here.
And to check up on the young men, especially Khalil.
Khalil has had a lot going for him. A mother who pushed for the right schools. A grandfather to teach him a strong work ethic. High-achieving friends to provide a kind of positive peer pressure. Basketball.
But nothing could really compensate for the lack of a father.
Bryant, said Khalil's mom, Genevive Core, has played a fatherly role.
“He kind of nurtured Khalil and never gave up on him,” she said.
And so Khalil never gave up on himself.
Today he is no longer the kid who gets in fights. He's the kid who organizes peace rallies at Omaha South. He is the kid who performed in the school musical, “The Wiz.” He is the kid who plans to go to college.
He is the kid who is almost a man.