Just a stone’s throw away from Albion’s campus, nestled into a small corner of Tennant Hall, there are big things happening. From his office in Tennant Hall, Mr. Harry Bonner, runs his program, Kids at Hope, for the students of the Albion/Marshall school district. Kids at Hope is by legal definition a substance-abuse prevention program, but to the students and families involved, it is so much more.
When I arrived at Bonner’s office last Wednesday, it was a bustle of activity. He had four of his students there as well as a college mentor all busily playing a picture game. Inside his office though, it was possibly even busier. Aside from Bonner and Christopher Forrest, the program director of Kids at Hope, there were many people who filed in and out of his office in two hours. And despite all of the distractions and visitors in his office, Bonner juggled it all like a true professional. Between his work with Kids at Hope, his work with the school district and in the community, it’s obvious that he’s had a lot of practice over the years.
When asked what inspired him to start Kids at Hope, Bonner replied that this program had a deeply personal meaning to him.
“My mom was an alcoholic and my uncle—her brother—is an alcoholic, so I saw that side of it early,” said Bonner. “And the initial motivation is to really to prevent and to help people from getting to where my mom and my family was.”
It wasn’t always so clear to him that he would be doing this type of work though.
“When I started out, I had no idea in the world how I was going to do any of that,” said Bonner. “The job I applied for was a crisis intervention center, and that was in 1977. So I went from the crisis intervention work, more to education work, more into youth development work, into what you call a career. Your career evolves. Then you will find hopefully along the way what your passion and destination is. But when I started out, I wasn’t thinking of that part, so that kind of came along as I went.”
It is clear that he was made for doing this kind of work, especially his work in the community. Bonner not only frequently receives visits from the Albion City Manager Dr. Sheryl Mitchell, but he also received a friendly phone call from State Senator Mike Nofs talking about possible grants for the Albion School District. Bonner has his hands in so many different community projects, but he seems most passionate about his work with the children and his leadership program with Kids at Hope.
Through Bonner’s program, the children have opportunities to get involved all around the community in various leadership roles. Bonner works closely with the city council, and that gives the children their own opportunities, like the Council of Kids, where the students learn what it would be like to be on city council one day and learn the responsibility that comes with it.
This leadership program puts the children in direct contact with Albion College students through mentoring programs and foreign language tutoring. Candace Cullens, a senior from Grand Rapids, worked closely with Bonner last spring in an internship and continues that work with him now as the founder of the student mentoring program.
For the past year, she’s been working closely with Bonner and learning important tools of the trade, such as how to be more effective in substance prevention.
“I’ve always kind of known that having the trust with [the children] is important, but he always preaches about having relationships with the kids. It’s so important,” said Cullens. “It’s one of the biggest things that he does. Actually knowing the kids is one of the biggest things I took away from [the internship].”
This isn’t just true from Cullen’s life, but Bonner practices what he preaches. Bonner is clearly connected with the children in his mentoring program. When Ja’Nyece Larry, a seventh grader, walked in the room, he immediately began to ask her questions about her day and her bus ride that morning, where she stepped in to help a fellow student who was being bullied. Bonner mentioned that he would text her continuously throughout the day and ask if she was willing and ready to do everything necessary to be a leader. Ja’Nyece’s response, yes she is.
Throughout the years, Bonner has worked with many students in the Albion Community. His love for mentoring and teaching is obvious and evident in his many interactions with the students he sees almost daily.
“The most rewarding part for me is these kids,” said Bonner. “It’s always the most rewarding part because when I look at them, I see our kids, our sons, our grandchildren and great grandchildren. And so they are the most rewarding part.”
A job like this doesn’t come without some challenges. Throughout the years, though Bonner has seen so many of his students succeed in their goals, he’s also seen students who couldn’t escape the endless cycle of poverty that can occur in post-industrial cities like Albion.
Surprisingly however, Bonner says it’s the systems that have challenged him the most throughout the years.
“The challenging part for the work is systems,” said Bonner. “That could be the public school system; that could be public safety, which could be the home or the parent. When you have a home where the parent is using drugs and you’re trying to help the child, that becomes extremely challenging. It’s a very difficult thing when you’re working with kids that come from environments that they’re doing illegal things. How do you break the cycle of poverty, of violence, of selling drugs?”
Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer to this question. You can’t fix all of the world’s problems, no matter how hard a single person tries. Yet that doesn’t mean that hard work can’t make a big impact on the community or even the world. Creating safe and educational spaces like Bonner has done with Kids at Hope is the best you can do as a community leader. By teaching the children to make their own decisions and empowering them to think responsibly, Bonner is giving them some of the most valuable life lessons a mentor can and the independence to stand on their own.
“That’s the whole philosophy behind Kids at Hope, every child can succeed,” said Bonner. “The thing is they have to believe that they can.”
Photo by Clare Kolenda