GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — With every stomp, step and clap, young men are transforming their lives and hyping up younger generations to exceed expectations and be positive forces in their community.
That's what Willie Joyner had in mind when he started a step team called HYPE — Helping Yourself with Pride through Education.
It was 1995 and Joyner was in his first year of teaching at Enfield Middle School in Halifax County. The boys in the rural community needed motivation, he said.
"I wanted to give them an incentive to do their work, work hard and provide them with an avenue to build their self esteem and ... rearrange their thinking about the value of education," he said.
Joyner was on a step team at East Carolina University and knew participating could make a difference. He started with a group of 16 young men, offering them opportunities to attend field trips and perform in front of hundreds of people in the community, as long as they kept their grades up and stayed out of trouble.
After one year, he saw a drastic change in a reduced number of school fights and increased performance. He brought the program to his next schools in Beaufort County and then to A.G. Cox Middle School in Winterville. The program has thrived in Pitt County.
Joyner, now an assistant principal at North Pitt High School, said the challenge of stepping is what initially draws interest, but a bond that forms among team members keeps them dedicated.
The middle schoolers also began a big brother program, tutoring and reading to at-risk males at feeder elementary schools and motivating them in the example Joyner set.
"I didn't have to do it by myself," he said. "I think there were certain members who understood the concept and went along with me with trying to get everybody else to understand what we were trying to do."
Joyner said one memorable moment with HYPE was when six men graduated in 2012 from both the program and high school. He said some of them originally were not on track to graduate, but peer accountability encouraged their success.
"If people only knew the story behind some of the difficulties they faced — just trying to get a diploma, just trying to walk across the stage — they would have a better appreciation for just the push, not only that what we have with the program but the push that each of these young men have for each other," he said.
In 2012, HYPE reached another milestone when the team was named Disney National Step Show Champions.
The group continues its work, including participants from high school and as young third grade in tiered teams. Seventy-five boys have participated since its inception.
The program requires a C average in school, though many exceed that, and positive behavior at homes and in school.
Raquane Smalls, a junior in high school, has been with HYPE since middle school, when he learned about the program from Joyner.
"In middle school, I was bad," he said. "I got sent to Mr. Joyner's office a lot ... and he was hearing my name a lot because I kept getting in trouble."
Smalls said the program has helped him mature, and he has plans to attend college for engineering.
"It kept me out of a lot of trouble, and I thank him for that," he said.
"If it wasn't for him, I would probably be somewhere I shouldn't."
High school senior Ajay Roberts has been with the program for six years and said the best thing is the brotherhood it provides.
Roberts said he has a brother who "didn't make it" and sees Joyner as an inspiration.
"He's a great role model for any young man," he said.
Roberts wants to enlist in the Army, attend college and become a social worker.
"I just want to help people," he said.
Eighth-grader Kasean Everson, who wants to start his own record label, described Joyner as a caring father figure.
"He wouldn't want you to feel down or sad or anything like that," he said.
"You can call him when you need him. You can always depend on him."
Joyner said HYPE will continue to participate in step shows and competitions as well as keep a strong focus on the importance of education.
"We definitely want to be something that young men can have in lieu of being involved in gang membership," he said.
"... When I see the news and I see young men being shot and killed, when I see the news and see the number of young men arrested for different things, when I look at the state of our young men in the educational system, it really drives me also to continue to do what I do," Joyner said.
"I continue to meet young men who need what we have."
Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com