Real Men, Real Heroes, Inc. traces its beginnings to late 2006 when a Wichita philanthropist committed to improving the lives of children sought to do something to help African American boys, the demographic segment of children at great risk. Philanthropist Barry Downing challenged his children’s projects manager Polly Basore to come up with an idea. Basore held numerous conversations with members of the local black community, local educators and leaders of nonprofit mentoring organizations.
A constant theme emerged identifying a need for positive role models — something to counteract the damaging effects of boys growing up in fatherless homes, exposed chiefly to media images that seemed to portray black men as either criminals or successful only in the fields of pro sports or rap music.
In Wichita, as elsewhere in the nation, nearly half of all black children live without fathers at home – twice the rate of any other ethnic group in the United States. Census data shows that children in mother-only families, regardless of race, are more likely to live in poverty, be arrested as juveniles or have children in their teenage years, factors that all contribute to a lifetime of difficulty. If black boys were suffering from exposure to images of negative and/or unrealistic role models, then why not show them the opposite?
From this was born the concept introducing local black youth to real men in their community who were everyday heroes. In March 2007, Basore invited two dozen members of the community to form an advisory committee to shape what became The Real Men, Real Heroes Project. Initially, nominations were sought from the public to identify men who qualified as exemplary role models. Nominations were then reviewed by the advisory committee and subjected to formal background checks.
A group of 32 men were then invited to join the project, taking on the role of being identified as a Hero in promotions aimed at generating excitement among youth. In October 2007, the Heroes were featured on billboards, bus signs, TV and radio advertisements — and most notably — a set of Hero Trading Cards. More than 10,000 packs of cards were distributed to all 3rd through 8th grade boys in Wichita. Following this marketing blitz, Heroes immediately began visiting classrooms in Wichita public schools and accepting invitations at other community venues around Wichita. Boys collecting the cards were offered incentives of “Future Hero” T-shirts for getting Hero trading cards signed. The Hero Project was so successful at generating attention and positive response that it gained the attention of the White House. In May 2008, President Bush recognized Hero Buddy Shannon with a President’s Call to Service Award during a visit to Wichita. Shannon accepted on behalf of all the Heroes.
With the pilot project complete, the Heroes in June 2008 set out to form a board and establish their own non-profit organization. The Hero-directed group immediately set about developing direct mentoring programs for boys of all ethnic groups (they had found a universal demand for adult male role models during their school visits), in addition to serving as role models and public speakers. The group formed a partnership with the City of Wichita, which provided some administrative support in exchange for Heroes mentoring youth during the summer at a city-operated neighborhood center.
The Heroes soon established the Future Heroes program (previously known as Saving Our Sons), targeting middle-school boys. The Teen Heroes program was created in 2009, as the Heroes saw a need to involve positive role models closer in age to the children they were trying to help. In 2010, the Heroes began working in collaboration with a black men’s fraternity on a project called Alpha Esquire, which prepares young men in high school for success in college and the professional world. As a result of the positive effect the Heroes were making in the community, inmates at nearby El Dorado Correctional Facility asked if they too could be mentored.
As word of the organization continues to spread, caring adults from around the state and the region are asking how to start Real Men, Real Heroes chapters in their towns. Leaders of Wichita’s Real Men, Real Heroes make visits to interested communities, spreading word of the need for mentors and sharing stories of the difference mentoring makes in the lives of both children and mentors.
Today, Real Men, Real Heroes continues to grow, reaching nearly 5,000 children each year through mentoring, tutoring and school visits. Nearly 30 adult men serve as Heroes with 10 Teen Heroes assisting as well. The organization is operated by volunteers who depend on donations to pay for T-shirts, meals, outings, academic incentives, printed materials and scholarships for the Teen Heroes. If you would like to support this worthy effort, please consider going to our home page and making a donation via PayPal.