The Power of Mentors

by Joseph Cohen, President, and co-founder, Empowered Fathers in Action 

There was something strange about how Anthony rushed to Bernard’s car that day after leaving the grocery store. “Drive,” shouted Anthony as he jumped in. He slammed the door and looked over his shoulder.

“What did you do, Anthony?” asked Bernard. “Robbed the store,” said Anthony. “Drive, man, drive.”

“You what?” screamed Bernhard. His heart was pounding as he gripped the wheel tightly while speeding away. Fortunately, Bernard knew the streets of northwest Washington, D.C.. The jalopy he bought for a hundred bucks got them away.

Anthony Baker asked for a ride to the store after they finished playing hoops one summer night at a neighborhood park. “I was so mad that day, I wanted to kill him,” said Bernard. “He could have destroyed my life.”

That was the first turning point in Bernard Johnson’s life. It came shortly before he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. that fall.

Strong Work Ethic

Although Bernard had also been accepted to Columbia University in New York, he chose Howard University to keep his expenses low. He supported himself at age nineteen. Bernard collected overdue books for the public library, working full time. He lived on his own while attending Howard and graduated debt-free.

Bernard’s mother, the superintendent for decades of a building on the corner of Quincey and New Hampshire, modeled the work ethic he later developed on a Division Championship team at Mackin Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. “Coach Furlong put us through some grueling cross-country track workouts as part of our training,” said Bernard. “He was a disciplinarian.”

“Walking on” to a prestigious college basketball team like Howard University is challenging because the recruited players are considered first. There are few, if any, available positions for those who show up to tryout.

Although Bernard gained confidence as a starting guard for Mackin High School, he was initially cut from the Howard University Junior Varsity.

But getting cut didn’t deter him. He convinced the coach to let him continue and he went to the next tryout. His name didn’t appear on the second list either, but he managed to persuade the coach again. So he went to the third tryout. The same thing happened again; however, Bernard Johnson eventually won a spot on the JV. Three weeks later, he was a starting guard. “It was a matter of pride for me,” said Bernard. “I knew I was more talented than some of the other players, so I didn’t give up.”

Bernard preferred the calm demeanor of Dr. Herman Terrance, who was also the Department Chair of Physical Education, Health and Recreation (PEHR), to his disciplinarian high school coach. He later became a student of Dr. Terrance as his major at Howard University was PEHR. “I wanted to emulate him,” said Bernard.

The encouragement Bernard received from Dr. Terrance during the next few years made an indelible impression.  Always do your best. Become an expert in your field. Invest time studying. Strive for professional growth and development. “He was the father I never had,” said Bernard, who first met his biological father at age fourteen. 

The mentorship Bernard Johnson received from Dr. Terrance at Howard University was the second turning point in his life.

Successful Despite the Circumstances

Like many of his closest lifelong friends, Bernard grew up without the benefit of having an involved father. Bernard’s father came to live with him and his mother when he was fourteen years old. “The only thing I knew about him was that he drank a pint of rum before going to bed each night,” said Bernard. “I only saw him at night and we hardly spoke at all when he lived with us.”  Bernard’s father was killed in a car accident a few months after he arrived.

Bernard’s mother was a building superintendent and the sole provider of their family. She laid a firm foundation for her daughter and two sons. Bernard was an altar boy while in elementary school at the Catholic church they attended. “I was attracted to the spiritual aspect of religion,” said Bernard. “Having good values and living a wholesome life appealed most to me.”

Although Bernard’s mother sent him to Catholic school from grades four to twelve, he was upset during his first year away from public school. He disliked riding the school bus and making new friends.  “Sending me to Catholic school was one of the best things my mother ever did for me,” said Bernard. “It helped open doors for me that might have otherwise been closed.”

Unfortunately, Bernard’s mother died at fifty-four years old and didn’t see him graduate high school. He lived with his sister, seventeen years his senior, and her husband between fourth and eighth grade. But when the constant fighting between them became too much for Bernard to handle, he moved in with his brother and four cousins. “My brother was very strict,” said Bernard. “I earned my own money, got good grades, played a lot of ball, and moved out when I got accepted to Howard University.”

Bernard’s tutelage under Dr. Terrance further shaped his character. He chose to focus solely on his studies after his year playing on the Junior Varsity. It paid off. He graduated Cum Laude. Soon afterward, Bernard was hired to work in a K-12 suburban school in Wellesley, MA as a Program Leader. During those next three years, he mentored many underachieving inner-city students who were bused to that school. Bernard was also recruited to coach his first high school basketball team in Brookline, MA where he remained for eight consecutive seasons. It was there he met Lance Tucker.

The Spoilers

Lance Tucker was one of the originals. So was Curtis Bolden and James Garvin. They all played in a semi-pro basketball league for professionals in Boston during the early 1980s.

Lance apprenticed under Bernard as his assistant coach in Brookline, MA He was promoted to head coach after Bernard resigned to coach college basketball and remained for fifteen years. Like Bernard, he was an educator making a difference with inner-city youth. Lance was an itinerant special education teacher traveling between schools. It was one of the most challenging roles in the Boston public school system.

Curtis was an entrepreneur in the foodservice industry catering to colleges and universities. He was the only one of them who saw his dad sporadically.

Bernard and James played high school ball against each other in Washington, D.C. Years later, the National Basketball Association Buffalo Braves signed James after he graduated from Boston College. He played pro ball for three years. “James was rough around the edges back in high school, “ said Bernard. “He was the last one we thought would become a Pastor.”

Thirty years later, they still reminisce about their victories during those four years dominating the semi-pro league in Boston.

A Community of Professionals

The core group of four Spoilers grew exponentially over the next few decades as Bernard’s career blossomed.

Bernard continued following Dr. Terrance’s success system. Eventually, he earned a Masters Degree in Physical Education and School Administration from Boston College. He later moved south to become Head Men’s Basketball Coach and Athletic Director at Florida Memorial College. Although Bernard occasionally visited Dr. Terrance to keep him abreast of progress mentoring his student-athletes, their relationship remained collegial. “We finally scheduled a golf outing,” said Bernard, “but Dr. Terrance passed away before we got to play.”

The Spoilers have become a non-profit organization ( that donates thousands of dollars annually to youth groups and The Sharon Lee Scholarship Fund. Most of the thirty men who have attended the annual outings over the decades are raising families.

The brotherhood Lance, Curtis, James, and Bernard formed attracted other professionals who grew up without having the benefit of an involved father.

Community-minded men who gather annually for the hoops, tennis, and golf as much as for the fellowship. Rarely is there a dry eye or a closed heart after one of James Garvin’s fellowship sermons honoring the mothers of the Spoilers or the men they have become.

Thirty years later there is a second and third generation of young men who have benefitted from having involved fathers. And mentors. 

Defenders of Potential

The Spoilers have organically accomplished some of what Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) has systematically achieved in communities across the country for one hundred fourteen years.

It all started for Big Brothers in 1904, when a young New York City court clerk named Ernest Coulter was seeing more and more boys come through his courtroom. He recognized that caring adults could help many of these kids stay out of trouble, and he set out to find volunteers. That marked the beginning of the Big Brothers movement. Today, Big Brothers Big Sisters currently operates in all fifty states—and in twelve countries around the world.

An orientation and background check is done before a formal interview is scheduled to determine eligibility to become a mentor. The forty-five-minute interview addresses personal history and preferences to establish a good match with a “Little.”

Programs and Results

The Northeast Florida BBBS organization impacted nine hundred seventy-three boys and girls in 2017-2018.

The Community Based program allows Bigs and Littles to spend time in the community doing fun and interactive activities, working toward personal achievement and positive character development. To participate in this program, Bigs commit to an average of four to seven hours per month for an entire year with their Little.

The Northeast Florida chapter recorded 13,333 mentoring hours including eighteen community events and four Bigs roundtables. It served three hundred twenty-nine Littles. According to their survey, 100% of the youth involved avoided the Juvenile Justice System; 88% maintained or improved risk-taking behavior; 71% maintained or improved their education expectations, and 63% maintained or improved truancy.

The School-Based program focuses on personal success and academic achievement through weekly mentoring sessions at a Little’s school. Bigs help with homework, sharing conversation, setting goals, and/or bonding over lunch.

The Northeast Florida chapter recorded 8,645 mentoring hours including partnering with over 50 Duval County Public Schools. It served four hundred eighty-seven Littles. According to their survey, 99% of the youth involved avoided the Juvenile Justice System; 91% had no behavioral problems; 91% maintained or improved school attendance, and 74% maintained or improved their education expectations.

The Beyond School Walls program connects Career Academy students with local businesses. These strategic partnerships enrich the education and preparation of students by providing meaningful and relevant work experiences.

The Northeast Florida chapter recorded 2,472 mentoring hours. It served one hundred fifty-seven Littles. According to their survey, 100% of the youth involved maintained or improved classroom behavior; 98% maintained or improved school attendance; 91% of Seniors graduated with post-secondary plans, and 82% of the Seniors graduated high school.

The Bigs in Badges program connects children with servicemen and women, building strong trusting and lasting relationships. This initiative helps create positive associations, builds stronger bonds, and increases trust within the community.

The Northeast Florida chapter involved one hundred sixty-three mentors. According to their survey, 99% of the youth involved avoided the juvenile justice system.

Overall, fifteen businesses participated in these four programs. Amongst others, they include General Electric, Citibank, Jacksonville Port Authority, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and Florida State College at Jacksonville. Students from eight career academies participated. Amongst others, they include  Raines (Culinary Arts), Atlantic Coast (Information Technology/Digital Media),  Andrew Jackson (Cyber Security), Frank H. Peterson (Advanced Manufacturing), and First Coast (Global Logistics).

Joseph Cohen is a former New York City public school teacher and journalist who recently published Write Father, Write Son: A Bond-Building Journey.

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