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Friday, September 29, 2023

‘It’s not raining everywhere’: Gainesville resident continues mentoring boys despite COVID-19

Photo of a child from Boys 2 Men summer camp eating ice cream

With typical activities canceled, visiting ice cream shops became a popular pastime for Boys 2 Men summer camp participants.

Five-year-old Zyon Scott ran through the front door one summer evening. He looked up at his mother, Nakita Scott, with wide eyes.

“Well, Mommy, you know, if I lose something, I'm gonna have to be more responsible, and I have to grow up,” he told her.

The lesson, Scott said, came from Je’rod Sheppard, the 26-year-old founder of Boys 2 Men, a youth mentorship program. She chose to enroll her Idylwild Elementary School Kindergartener in the program so he can interact with other children despite going to school online.

The Boys 2 Men program was founded in 2017 for 5-to-17-year-old Alachua County boys. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the group continues to help young men set goals in school, sports and personal endeavors — even through laptop screens. 

The organization offers multiple paths for students during the school year: mentorship, sports and afterschool programs, Sheppard said. It also has a summer camp where students can continue to set personal goals outside of school.

The pandemic put the growth of Sheppard’s program on hold. While he continued to talk to the boys through Zoom and FaceTime, he said he had to cancel flag football, in-person meetings and even a trip to Busch Gardens. 

Zyon participated in the summer camp and is now completing the fall mentorship program, Scott said. While Zyon is attending school through the Digital Academy, Sheppard’s guidance has helped him to stay positive for the year ahead. 

“My favorite part of the summer was ice cream,” Zyon said. “I’m ready to go back to Boys 2 Men.”

Sheppard’s inspiration to mentor young minds came from his father: Newberry High School Principal James Sheppard.

“He’s had a huge impact here in Gainesville,” he said. “He has been a father and mentor to the people who didn't have one. I grew up with a father, but what I learned is a lot of people don't have fathers or mentors.” 

Photo of child from Boys 2 Men summer camp showing a video game point card

One of Sheppard’s 2020 spring students presents his honor roll prize after finishing the year online.

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When Sheppard attended PK Yonge High School, he received an offer to play football for Southeastern University. He was then met with a moral dilemma: some of his teammates were more talented than him but didn’t have the opportunities or the mentorship to be recruited.

After seeing friends and teammates make poor decisions, Sheppard said he decided to start his Boys 2 Men mentorship program. His initial goal was to inspire one child. 

Three years later, 32 boys call him their mentor this year alone. The community, nonprofit organizations and even former UF athletes rally behind Sheppard. 

Despite some students choosing to participate in the Digital Academy or Alachua eSchool, the Fall semester brought new opportunities for Boys 2 Men, along with a new, one-word motto for the organization: change.

Equipped with face masks and hand sanitizer, Sheppard said he will visit his students’ homes this fall. The program still offers flag football practice, but Sheppard hopes he can start county league games for the boys in the spring, he said. 

Andrew Murray, a 9-year-old Hidden Oak Elementary School fourth grader, has been enrolled in the Boys 2 Men after school program for the past two years. His favorite memory was the first day he played flag football with Sheppard and the other boys. 

“I got sad just coming home,” Andrew said. “I wanted to be able to go do something.” 

His mother, Deirdre Murray, said she has noticed that her son is more open to Sheppard’s guidance because he can relate through their shared love of sports. 

Through the pandemic, Sheppard has continued to contact Andrew’s teachers to make sure that he was keeping up with schoolwork through the transition to online classes, Murray said.

Aside from contacting teachers, Sheppard has told the boys a short anecdote to encourage positive thinking. 

“I always try to tell the kids, sometimes when you’re driving, it's raining really hard in the car, but you’ve just got to keep going. It's not raining everywhere,” he said. “So, keep going, keep pushing until you find the sunrise. Once you find it, you're going to be so happy that you learned the lessons you had when you were down.”

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