As we pause to honor veterans on Thursday, a group of Delaware vets is still engaged in an important mission on the homefront.
Several Delaware veterans are using their military experience to help break the cycle of crime in local communities by connecting with youth.
Founded by a former Army Green Beret soldier, the Green Beret Project started in 2016 in Dover and has expanded to Wilmington and Georgetown, offering after-school programs that provide tutoring, lessons on nutrition, physical fitness, job skills and personal finance skills.
âWe reach maybe 100 kids a week, but have a core of 15 to 20 who have demonstrated their commitment to the program who get to do more exciting stuff,â said Scott Kelly, past board president, now treasurer.
That includes hikes, rafting, farm tours, college football games and job opportunities.
âIt’s designed to reward a young man or woman who is committed to the program,â said Kelly, who served 24 years in the Army.
One student who demonstrated his commitment to the program is Maurice Cannon, who stayed on track academically with the help of the Green Beret Project and graduated from Dover High School this year. He just enlisted in the Delaware National Guard and is preparing for basic training.
His path to success started when he walked over to the Green Beret Project’s youth center in Dover to play basketball and met a Dover police officer, now retired, who was one of the first volunteer leaders in the program.
âFrom the moment I put them we started talking about working out, staying fit, staying healthy,â said Cannon. âThey tutored me over my junior year. I was failing math, but they helped me graduate. â
He said Green Beret Project leaders and volunteers helped his family âin countless ways,â including rides to doctor’s appointments and sports practices.
Cannon worked with the landscaping company started by the Green Beret Project.
âThat really helped me with work and life skills. They helped me get to where I am now, âhe said.
One of his favorite memories in the program was a camping trip to West Virginia where the teens went rock climbing and whitewater rafting.
âThat was a first for a lot of us. We had never gotten to do anything like that before, âsaid Cannon. âIt’s a great organization. It helps a lot of kids with sports, with school, at home. During a crisis, you have them to go to. â
The founders’ idea is to provide positive role models to guide children so those kids can be a positive influence in their families and to their neighbors – the ripple effect.
Kelly was asked to helped lead the Green Beret project by one of the founders, Justin Downen, a former Green Beret Army veteran who was working as an FBI agent in Dover.
âJustin quickly realized we are not going to arrest our way out of the problems,â said Kelly.
Partnering with volunteers including veterans and police officers, Downen organized the program and opened a youth center in a vacant building in Dover’s Simon Circle neighborhood.
âThere’s a broader network of veterans and other volunteers supporting this, people all over country who donate money and donate time,â said Kelly. âSometimes with young people, just showing them something outside their neighborhood is important. They can start seeing a future outside their block. â
While the program isn’t successful with every child, Kelly said the group leaders never give up on a kid.
âSome drop out of the program. Some have made bad decisions and gotten in trouble. There’s no easy answers, but we stick with them, âsaid Kelly. âWe always want them to come back. We want them to know even after a bad decision, somebody’s going to stick with them and care about them, dust them off and keep pointing them in the right direction. â
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One of the project leaders who appreciates second chances is Adam Kramer, the state president.
Kramer spent time in prison after being convicted on marijuana trafficking charges. After he was released, he wanted to help troubled youth turn their lives around. He got a job on a contract basis as a coach at the Ferris School, a youth detention center in Wilmington. While working at Ferris, he was introduced to Downen, the Green Beret Project founder.
âWe hit it off,â said Kramer, who talked with Downen about what he saw when he was incarcerated. âEveryone in prison had father issues, either they didn’t have a father in their home or their father had problems or they had problems with their father.â
Kramer now leads the day-to-day operations for the Green Beret Project staff of four along with two contractors who help with accounting and grant writing.
He said the group leaders and volunteers are like another parent, trying to provide whatever the child needs. Along with academic help, fitness and nutrition, the leaders may drive students to sports practice, see if they need food, a coat or help washing clothes. Adult leaders have worked with some students with the driving practice needed to obtain a driver’s license.
The program also encourages community service.
âWe shovel snow and cut grass at Habitat for Humanity homes,â said Kelly. âWe have a Christmas drive, handing out turkeys and toys in neighborhoods. It helps young people look outside themselves and experience the reward of helping others. â
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About 15 students in the program recently graduated high school. One is going to college, some have jobs lined up including one as a journeyman for a plumbing company, and two have enlisted in the Delaware National Guard.
âOur program isn’t designed to send people to military,â said Kelly. âOur purpose is to keep kids in school, teach them life skills, job skills and encourage them to make good decisions. Many of the leaders have military backgrounds so the students may see them as role models and consider going into the military, but we have also great partnerships in trades and vocations where kids coming out of our program can gain job experience. â
One of the partnerships has been with CrossFit.
âCrossFit allowed kids to come in and not only learn about fitness, but also to take the fitness coaching certification course for free,â said Kelly.
The program needs other partners as well, particularly ones who could provide buildings in Wilmington and Georgetown that could be full-time youth centers like the one in Dover. The program is borrowing space in Wilmington and Georgetown mainly for after-school programs.
âIn Dover, we have a core group of kids who started in the program in 2016 who have graduated high school and are getting into the workforce and already giving back to the program,â said Kelly. âWhen you change individual lives, that begins to change neighborhoods, and that begins to change cities.â
For information on donating or volunteering, see the website, thegreenberetproject.org.
Reach reporter Ben Mace at firstname.lastname@example.org.