Team Spotlight Apr 16

Building Men Team Member Spotlight: John Sams

“If I don’t know it, I’m going to learn it in order to be more effective.” That is the guiding principle by which John Sams does his job at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor’s Joel E. Smilow Teen Center each day. John’s passion is the Passport to Manhood program, which he leads. As a Benton Harbor native, John knows firsthand the struggles area young men face. 

Growing up, John had a strong male role model in his father. Of his close circle of friends, he was the only one who did. John graduated from Benton Harbor High School and attended Lake Michigan College, then later graduated from Manchester College. He understood the positive impact his father had had on his life. In contrast, he saw how that lack of influence adversely impacted so many of his friends. They had no personal objectives, some ending up in prison or dead. It is that reality that he brings to every Passport to Manhood session with his teens.
“These are not lessons the boys are learning in school,” says John. “They aren’t learning these coping skills in English, math or even in humanities classes. These are skills that they can apply immediately to their lives.” John loves seeing that spark of interest in the kids. “When they get something and buy into it, they own it,” he says. Antonio, one of the recent Youth of the Year finalists, learned how to tie a necktie in Passport to Manhood. It is something that Antonio will never forget and a lesson that he is now passing on to others. The pride instilled in Antonio is the reason, John says, he loves his job.

One of his most memorable transitions, John recalls, was a young man whose father was sentenced to 25 years in prison, causing the boy distress and drastically impacting his behavior. “He was a hothead,” says John. “He would even tell you he was a hothead!” John worked side-by-side with the young man to help him succeed, sometimes just to get through the day. Last fall, that hard work paid off as that young man became a sports leader at his school and turned his focus to academics, many times being the first to enter and the last to leave the classroom. “Seeing that change is one of my proudest accomplishments,” says John.
The 14-session Passport to Manhood program is changing the way our young men approach life. John has seen it in so many ways. Just one is the way that the teens are approaching relationships. “Where the boys used to talk about how many girls they could ‘get,’ they are now focused on long-term committed relationships. These young men are talking about attending college with their girlfriends, setting and sharing life goals with each other.” That change in behavior is what ignites John’s passion about the Passport to Manhood programming.

John is expanding his work with teen members, starting the Real Talk program for young men most at-risk. The program focuses on personal responsibility and putting forth a daily effort to make good choices. He doesn’t expect perfection, just effort. John tells the boys, “You are going to make mistakes, I’m still making mistakes!” For him, success is in how the boys handle their mistakes and move forward.

John is grateful to one of his mentors, Teen Center Unit Director Jeffrey Booker, for bringing him back to Benton Harbor and allowing him to work for his dream company. He is committed to the Club and to his role in the lives of Club members, serving as a change agent. “Passport to Manhood is changing the community. It’s a culture-changing program. And it is a chain reaction. When you empower young men to grow into educated adults, they are going to make fewer mistakes and handle problems differently,” says John. 

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