Michael Gong, ’15, spent many hours fulfilling a service learning requirement at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) during his freshman year at John Carroll University (JCU). It was as much a learning experience for Gong as it was for the youth he mentored. Together with Ned Barnes, ’15, and JCU’s Center for Service and Social Action, that learning experience became only a starting point.
JCU’s Arrupe Scholars program provides a mission-based scholarship to several students each year as it seeks to build leaders for social action. As an Arrupe Scholar, Gong fulfilled the service requirement by mentoring youth in the CCJDC in a program called “Passport to Manhood.”
“Everyone has stereotypes about what a juvenile delinquent is, but in reality, these kids are not like that. They have goals and dreams, and they’re hard-working,” said Gong.
Gong felt that there was a lack of programming for this population, so he began discussing what else could be done with Barnes, a fellow Arrupe Scholar. Having worked at an inner city youth summer camp, Barnes knew that recreation was a good way to engage youth. The concept of The Carroll Ballers was born when they decided that basketball would be a good addition to the mentoring program. Gong pitched the idea to Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Finucane, associate professor, Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, who served as director of the Arrupe Scholars program and JCU’s Center for Service and Social Action.
“I thought their idea had a lot of potential, but in my role as director, I was pitched a lot of good ideas,” said Finucane.
Finucane had a simple test to determine whether a student was serious about taking the lead in developing a program. She asked for a proposal with a couple of paragraphs to outline the idea and the participants.
“Given that Mike and Ned were first-year students who were both involved in quite a few other activities on campus, I really didn’t think I’d receive a proposal. I was pleasantly surprised when a couple of days later, in my inbox, the proposal was there,” said Finucane.
With help from the Center for Service and Social Action, Gong and Barnes revised the proposal and began meeting with decision-makers at the CCJDC to work out the details for a program that would include basketball and mentoring for 12- to 15-year-olds. JCU was able to provide transportation for its students to the CCJDC, and Barnes and Gong interviewed the first group of participants to ensure they had the right people for the project.
In fall 2012, seven students, including Gong and Barnes, took their first 18-minute ride on a Friday night in a JCU minivan from campus to the CCJDC to begin The Carroll Ballers program.
After the first semester the CCJDC asked if The Carroll could work with the 18- to 21-year-old population at the facility. Barnes and Gong felt intimidated. These men were the same age as the JCU students. What could they offer them? A lot, it turns out.
Because many residents lack a high school diploma, the JCU students offer GED tutoring for this group. Gong and Barnes have also offered themselves as a resource for those who want to visit campus. JCU has set up a phone number through which former CCJDC residents can contact them. Some young men have come to campus to use the resources, such as computers, to search for jobs or to work on their resumes with Barnes’ and Gong’s assistance.
“We were unsure what to expect when we first started working with the older residents, but because they are older they know more what’s at stake,” said Gong.
After just two years, approximately 75 JCU students participate in The Carroll Ballers program, offering seven sessions total over six days for males and females at the CCJDC.
Although the program has expanded dramatically, the formula has not changed. JCU students arrive with dinner — McDonald’s, Subway, or pizza — and everyone shares a meal together at mid-court. Basketball follows dinner, and then JCU students mentor the youth or provide GED tutoring for the older residents. Barnes and Gong say they are fortunate to have the support of JCU and other local community organizations, such as the Gesu Parish, that support the purchase of food and apparel for these sessions. When The Carroll Ballers first started, some of the young boys had to wear a slip-on shoe because they didn’t have sneakers. After the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story on The Carroll Ballers in 2013, local donations allowed Gong and Barnes to purchase sneakers for those without their own. With help from JCU to find additional external funding, they also purchased jerseys to wear during the games.
In addition to local news coverage, the Ohio Campus Compact awarded Gong and Barnes with the 2014 Charles J. Ping Student Service Legacy Award. Most recently, they were named recipients of the Cleveland Indians 2015 Mentor of the Year award.
Now in their last semester at JCU, Barnes and Gong will oversee the program’s expansion to a state-run facility, the Ohio Department of Youth Services Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility. As for their work at the CCJDC, they’ll soon hand over the reins to three rising seniors who are committed to the mission of The Carroll Ballers.
“Michael and Ned have been extremely dedicated to The Carroll Ballers, giving extraordinary time and effort to develop the program. They are not only attentive to making sure the program reflects John Carroll’s Jesuit Catholic mission, but they are committed to developing the JCU students who are participants, as well as offering their support for the young men and women who are residents at the detention center,” said Finucane.