By Ed Runyan
Ask Deryck Toles whether he thinks he has something to offer kids from Warren because of the success he’s had, and he says yes.
But instead of telling you about the way youths look up to him because he played college and professional football, Toles describes something else: the fact that he grew up on the same streets as them.
“I made it out. They know where I grew up, so we definitely have a connection,” said Toles, 32, founder and head of Inspiring Minds, a seven-year-old program that helps about 30 Warren high school students per year learn how to succeed.
The program operates through donations and grants. Toles is the only full-time member of the staff, but there are about 17 part-time staff members and about 20 volunteers.
“They ask me, ‘What’s it like?’” Toles said recently of his football and college career. “It’s amazing, but you have to want it for yourself.”
Toles isn’t trying to inspire Warren teens to emulate his athletic career. Instead, he tries to make them understand what they need to do to make it into college, how to make it through college and how to become successful adults.
“You learn that there’s a big world outside of Warren, Ohio, and I want our kids to have that experience,” he said.
One way the program helps kids is to allow them to see colleges for themselves.
About a month ago, they traveled to North Carolina, seeing the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and North Carolina Central University.
They also visited Coca- Cola so they could see what a state-of-the-art corporation looks like and the types of jobs there. They also saw an art museum — “things they’re not exposed to every day,” he said.
“They say, ‘What do I have to do to have this every day in my life?’” said Toles.
Throughout the school year, from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays and for several hours during the summer, freshmen through seniors from Inspiring Minds learn how to make that happen.
“Statistics show if students are exposed to a college campus, they have four times the chance of going to college and being successful,” Toles said.
Their time at Inspiring Minds, on the first floor of a former school on Laird Avenue Northeast, is for studying, practicing their speaking skills, learning how to apply for college and find the right college, resume building and gaining confidence.
It’s also an opportunity to talk to someone about life — such as the challenges of growing up in a town where nearly 100 people were charged earlier this month with drug dealing and weapons offenses.
Michael Notar, superintendent of Warren City Schools, said Toles is a mentor and role model as well as a sounding board.
“He listens to them. They share personal things with him. He helps [students] head in the right direction,” Notar said. “He lets them see other parts of the world. Sometimes our students are so trapped in our city.”
Toles said the 100 percent graduation rate and 98 percent rate of Inspiring Minds graduates going on to college are the results he hoped for. More than 400 students have come through the program.
It has a grade-school component involving 160 students in the four K-8 buildings of the Warren City Schools.
“We’ve had people come into the program with a 1.4 [grade-point average] and now they’ve got a 3.5,” Toles said.
At a minimum, the program provides a productive place for kids to spend the time period between 3 and 6 p.m., what Toles calls the “danger zone — the time when 40 percent of America’s youth are home alone and unsupervised.”
“When we talk to kids, they say there’s nothing to do. They don’t have places to be social. When they don’t have opportunities to get engaged, they have more opportunities to get into trouble,” he said.
“What we tell kids is, if you just study for the next few years, you’ll be able to enjoy the rest of your lives.”
Crochell Johnson, a sophomore, said Inspiring Minds helped her keep up her grades at Warren G. Harding High School and give her the confidence to consider a career as a doctor.
“They opened my eyes that I could go [to college] if I do what I have to do.”
Satima Smith, a senior, said Inspiring Minds helped her to “pick out exactly what I want to do — a neonatal nurse” and helped her pick out the college that fits her the best — the University of Akron.
“They motivate you to be the best you can be,” said Danyo McGhee, a senior. “They’re always there if you need anything.”
“Without Inspiring Minds, we probably wouldn’t be as determined as we are today,” said senior Javier Smith.
“We learn how it’s possible to do all the things we can do with our education,” said Tamarcus Honzu, a sophomore.