Mentoring program launched by local friends

Submitted photo: Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter (far left) and Quennel McCaleb (second from left) are launching the 'Dodger Experience' for students in the Fort Dodge Community School District. Fifth-graders (left to right) Brody Maehl, Damari Clark and Amari McCaleb are pictured here with Dodger football coaches (left to right) Nik Moser, Jon Koenig, Blake Utley and Dan Adams.

Quennel McCaleb vividly remembers being a Fort Dodge Senior High athlete, brimming with talent but in need of purpose.

McCaleb was also the middle school kid who didn’t always have the means or motivation to attend Dodger events and activities.

The 1999 FDSH graduate still knows what it’s like to be a youngster searching for direction and starving for structure. Now, he’s ready to help do something about it.

McCaleb and Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter are partnering to launch a new initiative called the “Dodger Experience,” which will focus on mentor programs for middle schoolers and strengthen relationships between law enforcement and students within the Fort Dodge community.

McCaleb and Porter, who are neighbors and close friends, first got together for a brainstorming session to address the needs of local youngsters this past summer. The idea and motivation for doing so has always been a passion for McCaleb, who has used his own personal experiences — both good and bad — as a navigation tool to help direct leaders of tomorrow.

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Fort Dodge Middle School students (left to right): LJ Maehl, Meah McCaleb, Cadence Touney and Katie Mason work as helpers during a recent Dodger varsity volleyball match.

“We’re really excited to get going with this project and see where it takes us,” said McCaleb, a former three-sport standout and state track champion for the Dodgers. “This is going to be about building or mending relationships. We want middle school kids to be more active in helping at (FDSH) events. We want high schoolers to embrace the leadership role of connecting with younger students who look up to them. And we want to change the narrative that police officers are scary or bad people. They’re out there protecting us. They’re on our side.

“The focus with everything is just on being more positive, and addressing either the lack of communication or understanding that sometimes just naturally develops. We want to break down the stereotypes instead of climbing the same old walls of mistrust.”

Porter immediately saw the value in McCaleb’s vision, as both a parent and a professional.

“Quennel came over to my house to talk about what was basically an epiphany he’d had,” said Porter, also an FDSH graduate. “It was a vision: to get boys and girls more involved in community activities, and get (the) police (force) more involved with kids. It just grew from there.

“Our daughters (Meah McCaleb and Lucy Porter) are best friends, and both are in eighth grade. We all know a lot of students both younger and older who use a little more focus or incentive, and we also know (high schoolers) who would be able to provide it. So we’re looking to bridge that gap. We see the kind of impact (an FDSH student) can have on kids of a more impressionable age. They’ve been there. They can offer advice and leadership.”

Submitted photo: Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter plays catch with middle schoolers inside Dodger Stadium.

The plan is still in its infancy stages, both in concept and execution. McCaleb admits launching a program during COVID-19 “creates certain challenges that hopefully won’t be around a year from now.”

“This is kind of a dry run,” McCaleb said. “We’ve already had some middle school kids involved in the (pregame) Spirit Walk on a home football Friday, and we’ve had others working as ball girls for home volleyball matches.

“Down the road, I’d really like to see this grow into something that includes as many students and activities as possible. We want to be inclusive; we don’t want to limit it to just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kids, and it’s not going to be just about sports. But for now, with COVID, we’re kind of limited (by the rules) and we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin.”

McCaleb, who works in student support services at the Fort Dodge Middle School, would like to concentrate on the needs of FDMS students for the time being.

“We’re not ruling anything out for down the road,” said McCaleb, who is also a part-time residential officer at the Fort Dodge Residential Correctional Facility. “A lot depends on who gets involved (with the Dodger Experience) from both the schools and the community. I know (FDSH athletic and activities director) Kevin Astor is on board, and a lot of the coaches have agreed it’s a great idea. We’ll have the middle schoolers helping out and staying involved in different ways.

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: LJ Maehl of Fort Dodge helps disinfect volleyballs during a recent home match.

“I was a troubled youth. I wasn’t ‘in’ trouble, necessarily, but like a lot of kids from Fort Dodge, I came from a (low-income) household and didn’t always have the opportunity to go to games or events. When I did, I distinctly remember slapping the players’ hands and thinking to myself, ‘I want to be that guy someday.’ Then when I got to high school, I remember being in the locker room, interacting with kids and fulfilling that dream. I want to see that connection being made for more Dodgers, both young and old.”

McCaleb also knows how impressionable boys and girls are at both the middle school or high school level. The more they are able to relate to and bond with each other or an adult, the better.

“I’ll take to my grave that (former FDSH head football coach) Sam Moser made me who I am,” McCaleb said. “When I thought I wanted to quit, he reached out. He cared. He came to my house and talked to me. He’d keep me after practice and check in. And he stayed in touch with me even after my playing days were over.

“Sometimes, that’s all it takes. A person you can look up to, showing they care. It may be a coach. It may be an older athlete. It may be a high schooler in band or choir. You never really know where the motivation will come from, but that’s the concept behind this (program): bringing Dodgers together and creating relationships and friendships that could really stay with you the rest of your life. We’re one big family here (in Fort Dodge).”

Porter agreed.

Submitted photo: Fort Dodge senior captain Dayson Clayton stands with (left to right) Fort Dodge Middle Schoolers Brody Maehl, Damari Clark and Amari McCaleb inside Dodger Stadium.

“Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is. When you’re at that middle-school age, it helps to have someone you can talk to, look up to and count on,” Porter said. “What’s happening to you during those years often feels like the biggest deal in the world. As a parent, I want this to be an option for my kids — as any would. As (the police chief), we’re focusing on building community relations, breaking down barriers and establishing trust as a two-way street. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but we’ll put in the work and make (the mentorship program) an ongoing priority (for the FDPD).”

McCaleb is optimistic the “Dodger Experience” could become a true difference maker as time passes. And he is fully invested.

“This is what God put me on this earth for,” McCaleb said. “Reaching out to kids, regardless of their background. They all have different needs. Different problems. And yet, we’re more alike than we sometimes realize. I’m not going to just jump to one side and stay there. I want to go to the other side and learn. More often than not, we see that we have a lot in common. They say, ‘hey, he’s a human being just like me.’ The only thing sometimes separating us is the color of our skin, and that is no reason to be divided.

“If I can change just one person’s life in a positive way, I’m doing my job. We want to help make being a Dodger a connection we’re all proud to share at the end of the day.

“With everything going on in the world, now is the perfect time to start something like this.”

Sponsorship opportunities will be available — and necessary — for local citizens and businesses moving forward. To become involved with the program or for questions/more information, please contact McCaleb at qmccaleb@fdschools.org.


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