OKOLONA – Pulitzer Prize winning author and Okolona native William Raspberry had a passion for urging young African-American men to step up and be leaders for their community.
And he believed in starting early.
“Mr. Raspberry came from a strong home where children had strong role models and where reading and education were important,” said Kwanza Boone, mentor coordinator for Baby Steps. “He also quickly realized that was lacking in today’s culture. That was one of the many reasons he founded BabySteps.”
And BabySteps recently wrapped up its B.E.S.T (Boys Early Success Team) program with a ceremony with mentors, families and local officials.
“I was very pleased with where this went this year,” said Boone. “This program has never gotten bogged down in a lot of curriculum and process. It’s more about men building relationships and encouraging young boys in our community.”
B.E.S.T was made up of 3- and 4-year-old boys who were paired with volunteers, artists, businessmen, teachers, pastors and community leaders. The program was structured, vetted and carefully managed by Boone.
“I can’t thank our volunteers enough,” said Boone. “We made a special presentation to the staff, who were downsized in March, due to financial constraints of the organization. Our volunteers said they are ready to do this again next year.”
Mentors did simple things from carrying boys to get haircuts on Saturday, to carrying them fishing and out for ice cream.
“The ‘Best Cuts’ may have been the most successful part of this program,” said Boone. “Our mentors carried these young men to the barber shop for a haircut. It stressed the importance of self esteem, grooming and just showed someone cared about the way these kids looked.”
Boone said youngsters also gained knowledge from cultural artisans, volunteer readers at the childcare centers, teachers and childcare directors.
“We have to put an end to the pre-school to prison pipeline,” said Boone. “BabySteps Boys Early Success Team focused on planning events that the 3- and 4- year-old boys could share with male mentors. We wanted to focus on social and emotional skills and our mentors have become a major inspiration in these little boys’ lives. The parents recognized this and it was an example to them, too.”
BabySteps is a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 to inform and empower parents to provide quality early learning opportunities for their pre-school children.
BabySteps with the support of W.K. Kellogg Foundation is taking a several-pronged approach which include educational enrichment, parent education, community partnership, and a health and wellness approach. BabySteps places strong emphasis on stimulating and enhancing intellectual growth, particularly in language development and pre-reading skills.
Through partnerships with the Okolona School District, three early childcare centers, community service agencies, the National Council of Negro Women and other organizations, Baby Steps provides resources to parents with young children.
Baby Steps is governed by an active board of directors that is involved with all aspects of the organization.
Baby Steps was initiated in 2002 by Raspberry, with heavy infusions of his own money, as a way to encourage and support families in preparing children age 5 and under to enter kindergarten.
Raspberry, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and native of Okolona, died July 17, 2012, at his home in Washington, D.C. of prostate cancer.
For more information about Baby Steps, call 447-5040, or stop by the facility at 506 West Monroe Avenue in Okolona.