When Brandon Currie was growing up, he spent a lot of time on emerald tennis courts, racket in hand, awaiting a serve.
Currie was born and raised in Milwaukee. His father taught his older brother to play and naturally he felt the need to try to become better than both, he said.
In that time, he learned skills that helped govern his life.
They carried him through school and his career as a counselor, a Division I tennis coach and eventually the chief executive officer of STRYV365, a youth-focused nonprofit that provides education and athletic programs to develop a resilient mindset in kids.
“Discipline, communication, commitment — you’ve got to depend on yourself,” Currie said. “You’re on an island. No excuses, no timeouts and no substitutions.”
He hopes to pass those skills on to the students he mentors.
STRYV365 partners with schools, youth-serving institutions and community anchors in and around Milwaukee, including Wellpoint Care Network, formerly SaintA, and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Currie said a large part of his organization’s mission is finding ways to connect with individuals on things they’re passionate about.
This can take the form of athletics, a book club, performing arts and much more.
Finding the right activity or setting for someone to feel comfortable is crucial. It can be an escape for many kids, but is sometimes easier said than done.
If kids don’t see an activity, they might not know they want to do it.
For Currie, it’s a simple calculus: Visibility plus accessibility equals opportunity.
“If you want to create true change, we have to find ways to give people hope by creating opportunities for them by letting them see new things and then having access to those new things,” Currie said.
Currie said some of the organization’s curriculum can involve interpersonal skills, too, such as different methods of getting to know someone.
For example, teaching kids to take an “ask, don’t tell” approach to conversations can be an easy way to establish a rapport, he said.
“When you ask questions, it allows you to peel back more layers and dive deeper into getting to know someone,” Currie said. “Every time you ask a question, you learn more … before you know it, you find something in common.”
The goal is to give kids the tools to forge deeper relationships, especially through the isolation that has occurred with the pandemic.
“Some of these kids are completely disconnected from things that are important to them,” he said. “How do they navigate through that? How do they feel supported? … That’s our greatest fear … that there aren’t enough supports out there where they feel like they are heard and have a purpose.”
The organization formed in January 2020, just a few short months before the COVID-19 pandemic would force it to adapt as children were being kept home from schools.
Currie said his team has adapted by providing online sessions and making videos for students to follow along with at home.
Currie said each school’s version of the program might look different based on what it needs.
Some schools might have curriculum attached to a physical education class – others might need an after-school or summer program.
STRYV365 works with leadership to determine the best fit.
Creating safe spaces
At the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, 4030 N. 29th St., Currie said the program provides a safe space for open discussion and emphasizes life skills.
Judith Parker, principal at the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, said the organization’s presence in her school has resulted in some amazing transformations among students.
The academy has a male mentorship program that teaches students life skills.
For 10th graders Kingsemaj Dixon, Arkayvion Hall and Marvelle Handley, the program provides a safe place to be themselves.
“It gave us a time to get away from everybody and just chill,” Handley said. “When we’re in STRYV, we’re not worried about what’s going on in the next class or what are we going to have to go through when we get home – we’re just talking, having fun, learning with each other, growing with each other.”
The group meets three times a week and discusses current events and ways to navigate life.
Dixon said that hearing from adults who have had similar life experiences helps them make a playbook for life.
It also helps them vent feelings of frustration.
“We have an outlet to go talk to them and get all that anger out,” Dixon said. “It’s like a therapist in a way.”
It’s brought the three students closer together, too, finding the common ground that Currie strives to give all the people in his programs.
“I feel like it really did get us closer,” Hall said. “When we first went, we didn’t really know each other. But as the sessions progressed, it’s like now you know that you have people that are down for you, that got your back.”
One area where the program has been useful is the academy’s athletics department.
The school’s basketball team participates in the program, and mentors are able to use real-life situations to illustrate points about making wise decisions.
For instance, Currie said that the mentors led a discussion the day after basketball player LeBron James got into an on-court confrontation with another player.
The team members were asked questions about how they would handle a situation like that and what positive or negative effects their decisions could have.
Parker said it was especially important to have the program active during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every single one of our students has experienced some kind of trauma,” Parker said. “We want to give them access to resources to deal with it.”
Currie said you can’t change “what they see in their neighborhood, what happens in their house, what happens around them.”
But you can counteract those negative experiences by giving them positive ones through sports, school and connection.
“When you have a resilient mindset and you have empowered yourself to overcome adversity, that’s when you build this confidence, this inner strength to say, ‘I have options to overcome these challenges and I’ll figure it out,’” Currie said. “That’s how you create the change.”
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