Councilman makes call for mentors

Five-year-old Warren Houston showed the bigger boys how it was done: He kicked, he punched the air, he flailed around on one foot, as the others cheered him on.

The waist-high boy was the littlest of a few dozen children practicing karate moves in the front of the gym at Joe W. Brown Park on Saturday morning.

“He’s really getting into it,” his mother said from the sidelines. “Oh, he’s gonna tell everybody about this.”

Saturday’s karate lesson was part of Men’s Day, a day-long event organized by New Orleans City Councilman James Gray. To Gray, the day was meant to connect city kids with positive role models and outlets for wholesome fun. To the children, it was a chance to meet Saints players and practice karate.

“It’s all tied together — kids who have something constructive to do, who have adults in their lives willing to devote time and energy, who love them and care about them, are much less likely to get into trouble,” Gray said.

About 150 people signed in Saturday.

The councilman thinks the success of the event will be measured not by how much fun the children had exercising with Saints players, but by how many of the adult men who pledged to commit time to the effort continue to keep that promise.

He pointed to the recently renovated park, with world-class tracks and gyms, a pool and classrooms.

“We have the facilities and the will, but we need the way: Men who are passionate about helping our children.”

The idea — similar to the mayor’s Midnight Basketball program — is that inspiring young people might begin to abate the city’s intractable murder problem. Gray believes that hopelessness among the city’s children is the cause of much of New Orleans’ other ills: Blight, crime, drug abuse, poverty rates.

“We’re here to show the younger generation a positive way to go in life,” said Eddy Oliver, a volunteer and former elementary school principal. “Because the way most of them are going now is not good.”

He plans to start a chess club for kids. Others promised to coach sports, lead study groups or recruit high-risk children into after-school activities.

Warren’s mother, Yulandia Houston, said she wanted to start early on her boy, clad Saturday in his favorite Saints jersey.

She works hard, the overnight shift at a grocery, and she expects great things from him. She wants him to know he can go to college and grow up to be a productive member of society.

“He’s not going to be running the streets,” she said. “Things like this will keep him out of all kinds of trouble.”