Will Green knows what it’s like to grow up without a father in a home that sometimes lacked heat, lights or running water.
“I’ve lived that life,” said Green, 41, who grew up in Gary, Ind., and played basketball at Calumet High School. He earned a scholarship to junior college before transferring to UW-Eau Claire, where he also played ball.
Basketball, Green said, gave him an opportunity to change his life — along with a desire to help other black youths do the same.
Believing he could do more to help juvenile offenders by mentoring them instead of monitoring them, Green quit his job as a supervision counselor and launched his own program in 2004 with his wife, Becky.
Using the initials of his mother, Muriel Pipkins — who died of breast cancer the previous year at age 46 — Green named their new venture Mentoring Positives.
Based in the Darbo neighborhood on Madison’s East Side, Mentoring Positives works with juvenile offenders and at-risk youths to help keep them from committing crimes by combining basketball and other activities with coaching in social skills, anger management and employment.
Mentoring Positives will be honored Monday for its partnership with Madison police at the department’s annual awards ceremony.
“In law enforcement, we see so much negative and we see these kids at their worst moments,” said Sgt. Amy Schwartz, who heads the Police Department’s Crime Prevention Gang Unit.
“It’s the exact opposite” with Green, who sees “all the positive things” about the children he works with, Schwartz said. “It really ends up being a good balance.”
“We just really build off the kids’ strengths,” said Green, who spends a lot of time establishing relationships.
Many of the boys Green works with are referred by the state Department of Corrections or other agencies that contract with Mentoring Positives to provide services. Green usually knows nothing about them other than what he’s read in reports, which can be “pretty bad,” he said.
Others, he said, come from the many minority and low-income families in the Darbo neighborhood.
Some have experienced “a lot of trauma in their lives,” said Green, who sees “a lot of hopelessness.”
“They’re pretty tough,” he said. “It’s pretty real out here.”
Many of the boys are growing up without fathers, said Green, who talks with them about that and other challenges in their lives before they hit the court in the Salvation Army gymnasium.
“Right now, we have babies having babies,” Green said. Not only are they not equipped to be parents, he said, many lack the basic skills to be successful in school.
“A lot would be in prison if we hadn’t intervened in their life at an early age,” Green said.
Several of the boys with whom he’s worked are going to college, he said. “Some of them are getting jobs.”
Others, like Mo Banks, 18, and Arthur Adams, 19, both of Fitchburg, are growing vegetables, canning them and marketing “Off the Block” salsa, as part of Mentoring Positives’ urban agriculture program.
“At first we didn’t want to do it,” Banks said. “It teaches you just like if you try new things, a lot of doors open.”
“I love seeing what these guys can become, because they can become anything,” Green said.
Banks said he started coming to play basketball with Green when his mother worked at the Salvation Army, and he stayed involved after his friends left and ended up in trouble.
“If Will never came around to the neighborhood,” Banks said, “I would be in all types of trouble.”
Adams said he’s been in trouble in the past, and “talking about obstacles” in life and “how to manage without a father figure” has been “very helpful.”
Becky Green, 39, is working on launching a program for girls to make and market jewelry made from recycled items, called ReJeweled.
She also runs a weekly group for elementary and middle school girls, focusing on positive self-image and healthy boundaries, both physical and emotional.
“My parents divorced when I was pretty young,” Becky Green said. “I just knew I wanted to help kids and families.”
A native of Watertown, she met her husband at UW-Eau Claire, where she was a cheerleader and earned a degree in social work.
“This is our third job working together,” she said.
“This is not what we do. This is who we are.”