Building boys to men
Kut Different is working in Marion County schools to enrich the lives of youngsters and to show them a better way of life.
Jamie Gilmore Jr., who is one of the founding mentors of the “Kut Different” male mentoring program, right, poses with Demarius McIntosh, 10, left, one of the young men he is mentoring, during the Kut Different Family Fun Day at the Central Christian Church in Ocala on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.
Kut Different Inc. is partnering with Marion County Public Schools for a third year to offer a mentorship program designed to teach at-risk young men that they are more than statistics while providing them with life options.
The nonprofit organization, created in 2020 by Jamie Gilmore and his brother Eddie Rocker, guides fourth- to eighth-grade males to a better mindset with one-on-one attention that instills structure in them through male mentors.
The Marion County School Board approved a continued partnership with Kut Different Inc. during its Aug. 22 meeting. As board members reflected on student participants’ growth through percentages and test scores, Gilmore said there is more to look at than statistics.
He told the “Gazette” that high grades do not automatically translate to success in the real world. He noted that students who were in school with him who excelled with AB honor roll grades are not necessarily succeeding now. Meanwhile, other students can feel invisible at school.
“Most kids just feel like a number,’’ Gilmore said. “They feel like they are there because they have to be, sitting in a room with 30 kids where nothing is catered towards them.”
To reduce this sense of unimportance, Gilmore said educators and mentors need to focus on individual students’ needs and make them each feel special. Kut Different dives into students’ specific needs, starting at a young age, and seeks to inspire greatness out of them.
Gilmore was born and raised in Ocala, and resided there until he was 18. He left for college in Philadelphia but moved back home in 2020.
His mother worked at what was then known as Evergreen Elementary School and asked him and his brother to come and speak with some of the boys who were misbehaving. He said about five fourth- and fifth-graders sat at a round table, preparing to ‘fess up to what they did.
“A lot of kids, they don’t have that accountability. They don’t have anyone there to hold them accountable for their actions and to provide that structure. So, at that moment, me and my brother looked at each other and were like, ‘We need to do something about this,’” Gilmore said.
Thus, Kut Different Inc. was born.
The founders hit the ground running. Each brother recruited close friends and together they started holding weekly business plan meetings. As 2020 progressed, Gilmore got his foot in the door by volunteering more intentionally for a year at Evergreen; and even extended to other locations like Oakcrest Elementary, Reddick-Collier Elementary, and College Park Elementary.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 arriving just as the brothers were launching their initiative, only six boys got to experience the program’s impact in the summer of 2020. But even with just a short time of experiencing these dedicated efforts, officials at those schools recognized the significance of this mentorship effort and the difference it made in student behavior.
“A kid may never go to church, a kid may never play for a sports team, a kid might never go to a community center,’’ Gilmore said. “Most kids are in school, and we have to meet the kids where they are at.”
Gilmore wanted to start Kut Different at his roots with MCPS. He identified the Marion County School Board as a vital collaboration to ensure the program would take off. After contacting multiple community leaders, the organization landed a meeting with Superintendent Diane Gullett and got the go-ahead to offer the program in the school district for 2021.
It now regularly aids in Oakcrest Elementary, Howard Middle, Liberty Middle, Fort King Middle, and Horizon Academy Middle School. Four full-time members on staff, with the help of volunteers and additional partners, have already served around 100 to 115 students. The staff and organization operate through grants, sponsorships, and individual donations, to keep fueling this service.
With the organization’s success in such a small timeframe, and the vision in mind, community members nominated Gilmore for the Dr. Mike Jordan Vision Award. The candidate nominations were reviewed by an anonymous committee, and he received the award April 13 of this year.
Beth McCall, executive director of Marion County Children’s Alliance, presented the prestigious award and told the “Gazette” that “Kut Different is making a difference for the young men that are selected.”
She said the Vision Award goes to a “truly visionary” organization with “out of the box” activities and ideas for the youth to experience. Created in 2018, McCall said it commemorates Dr. Mike Jordan for his 18 years as executive director of the alliance and it represents his “tireless commitment” to the organization.
Making a difference
Early in 2021, Gilmore heard something that he said “hit him hard.” Schools were using a third-grade reading level to determine if students would be successful or not. He said he thought that was the craziest thing he had ever heard.
“If you say a kid is not going to be successful in third grade, we’ll take them in fourth grade and show you that the kid who may not have had that good reading level, we’ll take them and turn them into a success,” he said.
Kut Different offers other mentorship-related options, including the Empowerment Program during school hours, the After-School Enrichment Program (ASE) and the Summer Program.
The Empowerment Program partners with MCPS. During school hours Monday through Thursday, mentors help in classrooms as teacher aides, in groups, and in individual skill-building time. Gilmore said the team works to find the areas of need on each campus.
Day-to-day operations start off with a self-discovery journal that each young man has in order to share how he is feeling. Gilmore said this is incorporated so they can express themselves through writing and have an outlet to get bottled emotions off their chests. The mentors urge the students to get up in front of the room to read it aloud so they can find comfort in being themselves and to learn that others may relate to their thoughts, experiences, and situations.
“It allows them to be happy to get out something they’ve been holding in so long,” Gilmore shared. He said this program is built on opening them up and many tears have flowed during the intimate process. Mental health checks, as simple as having them rate one to 10 how they are feeling, are also included. Kut Different staff wants to help raise those low ratings and really listen.
Along with support, members teach these students the “Three E’s”—energy, effort and empower—skills that encompass what the organization is trying to accomplish through them. Gilmore wants the students to come in every day and give it their all.
Beyond these foundational principles, he said, structure and discipline are the most important takeaways. To build these skills, members introduce the topic and have them take part in scenario-based learning. Guest speakers are also occasionally brought in to help drive these qualities home.
The ASE Program operates Mondays and Wednesdays on the campus of Central Christian Church and Howard Academy. Mentees go further to utilize those skills learned through performing activities in a safe and self-developing environment.
There also is the Kut Different Summer Program, which is eight weeks long and runs Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. This program exposes students to future job opportunities and introduces them to real-world skill sets.
For example, Gilmore said last summer they offered a computer science and coding course; “Millionaire Mindset,” a financial literacy course; and “Social Emotional Learning,” SEL, an anger management and conflict resolution course. Eight workshops were also held, and mentees learned practical skills such as changing oil and tires on a car and phone repair.
“Imagine if we could make young people aware of all the opportunities in the world, and by the time they get to high school, they feel like they have so many options,” Gilmore said.
Kut Different is accomplishing this with elementary and middle school boys as they go on what Gilmore calls “exposure trips.” He said the organization wants to share what different businesses offer and possibly pique their interests in a potential future career endeavor.
One summer, the program mentors took the boys to Ocala’s Cone Distributing to show them a local career opportunity that offers a decent salary and benefits. There, they toured the site, learned about the various departments and spoke with the owner.
“One of the boys stated when he left there, ‘Mr. Jamie, when I graduate, I’m coming to work here,’ so that was a moment in itself,” Gilmore shared. He said another mentee noticed the company truck later at a nearby grocery store. Gilmore said those “Team Cone” trucks are always around but the exposure to the company made the student aware of what it was.
Through this program, members of the organization hope to generate a school-to-career pipeline because there are kids who aspire to career paths other than going to college and there are great opportunities for them straight after high school.
Beyond broadening young horizons, Kut Different also gives back to the mentors and volunteers who lend a helping hand. Surveys that the organization created to rate the mentees’ status show positive results with attentiveness and respect improvement.
In the Aug. 22 MCPS school board meeting, Dr. Sarah James said these mentors display what kind of relationship teachers should aim to have with students.
“If all of the 7,000 employees that we have across our campuses all picked one kid, we would solve the problem. If everyone picked one child that needed help, we could really close the gap,” James said.
Gilmore said to many of the members, including himself, this process is rewarding, and they feel they have learned more from the boys than the other way around.
“I know for sure I aligned myself with my purpose,’’ he said. “I know this is the reason God put me on this Earth to be doing this work, so it’s fulfilling to know that I’m aligning myself with God, that I’m doing his work. Someone out their daily is using something I may have taught them to get through their day. Someone out there knows that Mr. Jamie has their back.”