Men aid youths in trouble

Watching from a back row of the courtroom, Willie Battle saw something in the gangly teenager charged with skipping school and standing lookout while two friends broke into a house to steal pistols:

Hope.

Unlike the swaggering, mumbling defendants who show up for Richmond County Juvenile Court wearing untucked T-shirts and oversized, sagging jeans, Martin Holmes wore slacks and a collared, button-up dress shirt. He made eye contact with Judge Herbert Kernaghan and spoke up when answering questions.

Mr. Battle, the president and founder of Men Making a Difference, thought Martin could use a mentor.

"From looking at him in court and watching his attitude, I felt as if we could reach him," Mr. Battle said. "You could tell there was some good in him."

Men Making a Difference has been quietly working in juvenile court for the past three years. Judge Bill Sams said Mr. Battle and another volunteer sit in on hearings, then interview defendants to see whether they want to change their lives. If so, they introduce them to a mentor.

The group's 28 volunteers - all black men, mostly Fort Gordon soldiers and retirees - are currently mentoring 13 boys. The men are paired with juveniles charged with theft, burglary, criminal trespass and drug use, among other things, Judge Sams said.

Mr. Battle retired from Fort Gordon in 1990 as a chief warrant officer 4. The idea for Men Making a Difference hit him in 1996 while having lunch with some Army buddies, he said. They all agreed they were tired of seeing teenagers wreck their lives through crime, and they decided to do something about it.

He's since discovered the problem isn't so much the children as the children's environments.

"A lot of these kids are living the life that they've been taught," Mr. Battle said. "They're accustomed to this environment. They're accustomed to this lifestyle."

The mentors operate similar to Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors - constantly checking up on their "mentees," taking them to restaurants for chats, meeting with them at home and grilling them about the choices they're making.

Martin, now 16 and a sophomore at Hephzibah High School, meets with volunteer Herbert Williams once a week. Martin said he's learned to stay away from people "who aren't going anywhere," and he plans to join the Army after high school.

"He showed me how to work for what I want, and to be myself," Martin said of his mentor. "I don't have to show out, and I don't have to impress nobody."

With the courts strapped for money to experiment with innovative programs, Mr. Battle's group has been practical because it doesn't cost taxpayers anything, Judge Sams said.

"We can only save them one at a time, and we can't save them all," the judge said. "If we send Men Making a Difference a hundred kids, and they're able to help three of them, that's still success."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

WILLIE J. BATTLE

Age: 69

Family: Wife, Susie; adopted son, Lucious Mortin, Washington, D.C.

Background: Retired from the Army in 1990 as a chief warrant officer 4.

Title: President and founder of Men Making a Difference, a nonprofit mentoring program for at-risk youth.

Quote: "Christ didn't force us to follow him. He gave us a choice. We're giving these kids a choice."

WANT TO HELP?

Men Making a Difference wants a more diverse group of volunteers. None of its volunteers are white or female, so the mentors are at a disadvantage with whites or Hispanics, and they don't work with girls at all, Mr. Battle said.

He's seeking more volunteers, especially white and Hispanic men and women of all races.

Applicants must pass a criminal background check and get certified through a five-hour training program at the Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon. To inquire, call Mr. Battle at (706) 231-2007 or (706) 592-2280.

INTERESTED IN "MAKING A DIFFERENCE"?

Men Making a Difference wants a more diverse group of volunteers. None of its volunteers are white or female. So the mentors are at a disadvantage with whites or Hispanics, and they don't work with girls at all, president Willie J. Battle said.

He's seeking more volunteers, especially white and Hispanic men and women of all races.

To inquire, call Mr. Battle at (706) 231-2007 or (706) 592-2280

Applicants must pass a criminal background check and get certified through a five-hour training program at the Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon.