The Stuff of Movies

The characters you love in trouble, the villain who is responsible, and the hero you know will always come through, we all know the heightened feeling of sitting through a really great movie that leaves you feeling inspired. On San Antonio’s southside, in 2010, the makings of an inspirational story were all there. They were just needed a push to know their role in what would become a really remarkable story.

A People in Trouble

The students of Harlandale High School were certainly likeable and certainly in trouble. Harlandale had been identified as a “dropout factory” in John Hopkins University Professor Robert Balfanz’s 2007 study. This personality-filled, caring and hard-working group of young people just happened to live in mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods where 95% of the households were economically disadvantaged and where 50% of students would drop out of high school prior to graduating.

A Despicable Villain

Identifying the exact villain is a little more complicated. While the school district was struggling to see its students graduate, it was led by a high-impact, inspirational leader named Robert Jaklich and by amazing administrators like Principal Melissa Casey. While many of the families were facing a losing battle to find the traction necessary to see their children reach their dreams, these were loving, devoted parents who were willing to do whatever it took to fight for their kids.

Perhaps the greatest villain to blame in the story was the apathy and lostness of the rest of the city that had either accepted the idea that an entire side of town would struggle or that there was nothing that could be done. In the end, this was the most powerful adversary that needed to be overcome. This is where the heroes came in.

Velocity Is Born

In 2010, as Boy With a Ball relocated their global headquarters from Costa Rica to San Antonio, where the organization was originally founded, BWAB’s founder, Jamie Johnson, had a quick lunch with Boy With a Ball scientific advisory board member and University of Texas San Antonio professor and mentoring expert, Dr. Michael Karcher. After several years of providing Boy With a Ball with his expertise on how to measure the impact of the organization’s mentoring programs, Dr. Karcher was excited to have the organization in his own backyard and presented Jamie with an idea: “What if we did something together?”

Dr. Karcher had designed a cross-age developmental mentoring program that actually took high school students and trained them to be mentors to younger students. He had been hoping to implement the program in an at-risk setting and knew this was Boy With a Ball’s specialty. Boy With a Ball jumped at the opportunity. After a few months of conversation, Harlandale High School was selected as the site for the pilot program due to its proximity to Harlandale Middle School, just a block away.

Boy With a Ball team members began recruiting the 40 high school mentors needed for the program with a passionate invitation: “Up until now in your school, you have had the opportunity to letter in sports, band and drama, among other things. We want to give you the capacity to letter in caring. We invite you to become a group of superheroes who, like Dr. King and Mother Teresa, will change the world with your capacity to care. Please help us establish this program and you will be the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and John Adams of a historic effort that will be written about one day.”

The students said yes and they named the program, “Velocity.” The program grew quickly and has become a powerful strength for Harlandale Independent School District as well as for the southside as a whole. Three years later, all 40 of the Velocity mentors graduated and 95% of them went on to college. A miracle had happened. The story had a wonderfully happy ending.

So Who Was the Hero?

When it comes to deciding who the hero in the Velocity Harlandale story is, the difficulty is in narrowing it down to one. Dr. Karcher’s passion and genius in designing the program is up at the top of the list. The program’s manual, training manual and printed curriculum were as good as it gets and are now listed on the Department of Justice’s evidence based programs website. The parents of each mentor and their mentees were each courageous and sacrificial in providing the permission and then support for their children to be involved and for the program to go so well. Harlandale High School’s Principal Casey was a character from a movie, knowing and loving her students so well and doing everything that she could to help Velocity grow.