In the early 90s gentrification hit hard and all of us that lived in the housing projects got letters that they were going to be closing down. When that happened one of my uncles, Michael, moved to Milwaukee. My father said we were going to relocate as well – to California. So he moved out there and sent me to Milwaukee while he got on his feet. He eventually moved back to Chicago for a bit then decided Atlanta was his next stop. I stayed in Chicago with my uncle Steve.
Vondale and C.H.A.M.P.S. member Darrion Baxter at the United Center
To make a long story short there were so many things that I had to deal with as a black young man growing up on the South Side of Chicago that for me to even speak about it now takes me back in the moment to a time when I felt oppressed. I felt like my only ticket out was education but I didn’t know anybody who made it through education. There were moments in my life – like when I was fourteen – when I just felt like throwing in the towel and giving up. I had just buried my mom and my sense of direction was gone. So when I talk about what I’m doing now with trying to give back to my community we're talking about a very personal passion. The reason why is because when I turned seventeen that was a turning point for good in my life. I met a man by the name of Steven Ray Robertson who became my mentor. He was the first person who told me that God had a plan for my life and that he was in my life to help me get there. I thought “But you don’t know me, you don’t know my story, you don’t know my struggle, you don’t know my past” and he said, “What do you like to do?” and my response was simple – play basketball. I was on the varsity basketball team and Steven asked for my schedule so he could come to my games. Mind you at the time I was seventeen still in high school and my father had never watched me play and here’s a man saying he’s going to come to all of my games. After coming to the next six straight games, Steven was sick and said he wasn’t going to be able to make the next game. I was cool with that because he had just been to my last six games. Even so, hours later, there was Steven Ray Robertson in the crowd wearing a suit and tie with little or no voice cheering my name at the top of his lungs.
Vondale and Steven Ray Robertson at Noble's Gary Comer College Prep campus
"He showed me that one person can make a difference in somebody’s life. That stuck with me."
He showed me that one person can make a difference in somebody’s life. That stuck with me. He helped me get into college, he became a father, he was my mentor. When I became the first one from my family to graduate I went to him first and asked how I could repay him for what he had done for me those past six years. He said, “The way that you pay me back is not with money, but by doing it for someone else.” and that was the birth of C.H.A.M.P.S. I told myself I’d mentor as many young men in similar situations in order to pay him back. So that is what I do every Saturday. I sacrifice whatever I have going on at home and I give back and ultimately what I’m trying to do is pay him back. I will continue to do it until I die because he didn’t have to do what he did. His life made a difference in my life so I feel like I can impact many lives as a result.
Vondale with students at Gary Comer College Prep's prom
C.H.A.M.P.S. is geared towards the Black and Latino male populations. We started at Gary Comer College Prep a couple of years ago with a small academic lab with a few young boys identified as misfits. One day I decided to do something that my mentor, Steven Ray Robertson, would've done. I took the boys skating on a Saturday afternoon.
C.H.A.M.P.S. members with Northern Trust Senior Vice President Stacey Bolton
If you aren’t consistent that sends a message that you are not reliable.
The power of mentorship is consistency. If you aren’t consistent that sends a message that you are not reliable. Many of our young boys have pictures of their fathers not being around consistently so they don’t trust males to have that role in their lives. So I knew if this was something I was going to start it would be something that I’d have to continue. That Monday they came back to school and told their peers about our Saturday skating which naturally peaked their interest. The following Saturday when I got to the school there were sixty-five boys there. That’s how C.H.A.M.P.S. started to formulate.
Vondale and C.H.A.M.P.S. members with Reverend Jesse Jackson
The reason that name is so significant is because the word champion means you’ve won something. Many of our boys have never won a spelling bee, a math competition, honor roll, or even been called on by the teacher. So I said I would call them C.H.A.M.P.S. even if they hadn’t earned it yet because I wanted them to live and grow into champions. Our motto is “We believe we were born to win in every situation in life”. The group evolved into meeting every Saturday, doing homework, and the boys wanted to do something to make this stick. So we came up with a song which eventually became a video which eventually made its way to President Obama and next thing you know there we are in the White House watching our video together. C.H.A.M.P.S. is not just a moment it’s a movement. It’s amazing to be around a group of young men that inspire me. It’s not about what I started, because remember I’m paying a man back who did the same for me. That’s all I’m doing. I tell the young men that I want them to do this for someone else. Now a ripple effect is taking place.
C.H.A.M.P.S. is not just a moment it’s a movement.
Vondale and Gary Comer College Prep alumnus Orwin Mayers, freshman at Morehouse College
C.H.A.M.P.S. stands for Culturally Helping And Making Positive Success. C.H.A.M.P.S. Male Mentoring Program offers a culturally sensitive approach to developing the mindsets of African American and Latino young men. It is their hope that through culturally relevant conversations and interactions the young men are able to develop the skills necessary to navigate life in a positive and productive way.
Please visit www.champsmentoring.com for more information.