By Tom Held Special to Published Nov 26, 2013 at 4:36 PM

On a miserably dreary Saturday morning in November, a half-dozen young men set about the menial task of chipping mortar off bricks piled in a wind-swept parking lot in the Schlitz Park office complex.

Despite the chill, the gray sky and the seemingly unrewarding labor, all six worked without complaint: no heavy sighs, foot-dragging or shoulder-shrugs of protest. As directed, they salvaged the usable bricks from a former Schlitz Brewhouse and stacked them neatly on a wooden pallet for recycling.

The young men have embraced the value of a job, a paycheck (even if small), discipline and respect through their participation in the Operation Dream mentoring program and its Operation Work component.

It’s a small non-profit initiative tackling a challenge more daunting than that pile of bricks: stop the flow of young men going to prison from the neighborhood around North Division High School.

Founded in 2006 by Rodney Bourrage, a 55-year-old coach, teacher and advocate, Operation Dream works with boys ages 4 to 17, most of them from the 53206 zip code, an area highlighted in the ongoing WUWM (89.7-FM) series on the incarceration of black males in Wisconsin.

Roughly two-thirds of the African-American men from that zip code, ages 30 to 34, have been in state prison according to census data analyzed by researchers at the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Close to two-thirds of the adult males lack high school diplomas, and the vast majority of children – 90 percent according to one estimate – grow up in single-parent households.

Bourrage is working to counter the drag of drugs, crime and lack of positive role models with his experience, commitment and a group of dedicated supporters.

"You have to go deep if you really want to help these boys," said Dan Parman, a business consultant and the director of Operation Work. "There are many boys who will make it out of poverty and despair, but they will not make it without an advocate. 

"The boys who are jacking the cars and getting killed are the boys who have no advocates."

For the boys in Operation Dream, their advocates show up at their house early every Saturday morning. The volunteers and mentors pick up roughly 80 boys and deliver them to the Coffee Makes You Black Café, 2803 N. Teutonia Ave., for breakfast at 7:30. Some youths also receive free haircuts at the nearby Handsome Barber Shop.

At about 9 a.m, they march a few blocks to the LaVarnway Boys & Girls Club, and start a day of counseling, tutoring and exercise in a safe environment, a haven for many of these youths. Roughly 150 young men participate each week, and Bourrage is working to expand that number to 200.

The Saturday sessions focus on fundamentals: discipline, respect, education appreciation and mentoring.

"Escalate your mind by de-escalating your attitude," Anthony Williams, 25, tells roughly two-dozen boys filling chairs in a classroom. "You can choose your own actions, but you can never choose your consequences."

Williams and Marquise Washington, 33, challenge the boys to walk away from fights and trouble, to take control of themselves and their decisions. They encourage them to set and achieve goals, even small ones.

Moving from classroom to the gym, the youths follow directions and avoid horseplay or distraction. The level of respect and adherence to rules is remarkable.

"Surprisingly, a lot of kids are interested in some order, discipline and structure," said attorney David Gruber, a long-time Operation Dream supporter and admirer. "They like structure. They like to depend on something. When we say we’re going to do things, we do them.

"They are disciplined and no-nonsense, if you want to stay in the group, and grow in the group."

Mentors repeat over and over the message that education is the key to a future, and Operation Dream provides tutoring to help, in partnership with the University School of Milwaukee.

In the summer, Operation Dream organizes college tours and outdoor activities. The participants have gone to Milwaukee Bucks games, Admirals games, Brewer games, and on fishing and camping trips.

All activities are free, supported by donations and Operation Dream’s nearly $400,000 in annual revenue.

"When the school doors close, we don’t stop," Bourrage said. "We’re not a mile long and an inch deep. We’re two blocks long and 50 miles deep."

Bourrage keeps in contact with the Operation Dream participants and their parents, older siblings, or any relative who has responsibility for them.

"My motivation, when I grew up, I had people there for me, advocating for me, to show me the way," he said. "I had people to show me how to be a man, to guide me."

Cameron Bellinger, 15, said he has learned lessons through Operation Dream that no one else taught: how to stay positive, stay disciplined and focused on a goal.

Ricky Coney, 15, repeats a similar view.

"When I come here, it starts to get me on the right path," Coney said. "I’ve learned discipline, how to become more of a leader and a respectable scholar. I was doing awful in school, and here I learned how to do well."

The payoff for many of the participants comes through graduation into Operation Work, a combination of training and job placement that includes about 30 boys. They go through a six-week orientation on the basics of time-management, self-control, dependability, communication and cooperation.

Younger workers perform community service projects, and high schoolers take jobs cleaning, landscaping and working in offices or retail businesses. Two Operation Work participants found jobs during the summer at Westmoor Country Club.

"The lessons are learned over a period of time," Parman said. "If you show up, you’ll get money. If you work hard, you’ll be picked for the next job."

In the drizzle of a cold morning, the boys in that parking lot at Schlitz Park weren’t happily learning how to chip mortar off bricks. They were learning how to build a foundation.

Tom Held Special to

Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.

He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.

Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.