“Good things don’t really happen to me.”

The mall doesn’t open for another hour, but there are 20 teenage boys and a few adults gathering near a shoe store. Inside, a few employees prepare for what’s to come. Chris Cox, Back2Back Cincinnati Site Director, finds his way through the crowd, checking in on each young man to make sure they don’t have any questions. Wiler, one of the young men waiting, stands off to the side, so he makes his way over to him, asking, “What do you think is going down today?” 

“I don’t know what to think,” he replies, shaking his head. “I thought you were taking us to a drop-in center to shop for our back-to-school clothes.” 

Wiler and the other young men, gathered in the mall, are a part of a community called, Villedge. Villedge, a Back2Back Cincinnati partner, focuses on launching teens from hard places beyond the edge of their potential. Together, Back2Back and Villedge create opportunity for young men in the community through one-on-one coaching and after-school programming. 

A few weeks before the mall trip, the Back2Back Cincinnati and Villedge offered a creative way for the young men in the Villedge community to earn funds for back-to-school shopping. The Villedge Games concept was simple, each Tuesday night the young men were invited to a game night where they earned points for showing up, participating, and winning.  The incentive was for each teen to attend enough in order to earn one gift card toward their back-to-school needs. For seven weeks, they gathered to play games like knockerball, archery tag, bazooka ball, football, dodge ball, and basketball. After hours of play, they finished the night with a shared meal.   

When people play, laugh, and eat together, unity emerges within a community. The teens refused to miss Villedge games – no longer counting the points, but appreciating the experience. 

Pepper Jenkins, a Villedge coach commented, “These games are like Sunday dinner, and you don’t want to miss Sunday dinner.”

Up until now, Wiler had been disengaged with the guys, the program, and his own development. By week three of the games, something had changed. The positive words being deposited into Wiler by coaches and volunteers were being heard. As he participated, he found success and the other teens noticed. They began to follow Wiler’s lead. With this confidence, Wiler used his voice to encourage others. Wiler had earned the most points of any participant, and by the end of the games earned his teamwork award. 

A flood of memories from the summer overcome Wiler. “Good things don’t really happen to me,” he said to Chris. 

Today is different.

The doors to Footlocker opened, and Cincinnati Bengals’ star running back, Joe Mixon, greeted Wiler and his friends, welcoming them in for a VIP shopping spree. Each young man chose a new pair of sneakers, some clothes, and a backpack full of school supplies. 

Wiler smiled and hands full said, “You don’t mess around, do you?” 

No.  When it comes to vulnerable youth and families overcoming generational poverty, a community must come together to share resources and invest. Back2Back and Villedge welcome the opportunity to do so on behalf of Cincinnati’s most vulnerable.