It is a warm June day in Little Elm, Texas, about 35 miles north of Dallas. A slight breeze moves through prevalent shade trees on the expansive ranch owned by entertainer Steve Harvey. One hundred young men from female-led, single-parent homes are spending Father’s Day weekend here, receiving mentorship from a cadre of male volunteers, including about 20 local U.S. Army representatives dressed in fatigues.
The young men, ages 13–18, have come from about 20 states to attend the fifth-annual mentoring camp held under the auspices of the Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation. The youths were chosen after writing short essays and undergoing in-person interviews. Their mothers or designated chaperones are also here, participating in coaching and motivational sessions.
“Mentoring shows a child what to shoot for,” Harvey said in a CNN interview. “One of the first things I tell the boys on the ranch is, ‘You get to pick who you’re going to be.’ It’s a new target—instead of what they see in their neighborhoods.”
Although Steve and Marjorie Harvey have seven children in their blended family, they dedicate considerable time and resources to providing mentorship to both youths and adults. In 2007 Harvey partnered with the Walt Disney Company to create the Disney Dreamers Academy, providing 100 gifted and talented youths with mentorship and exposure to a variety of job skills and career opportunities. In addition to the camp at his ranch, Harvey has hosted three-day regional mentoring camps around the country for young men from single female-headed households. In 2010 the Harveys created “Girls Who Rule the World,” a three-day event in Atlanta for teenage girls.
“In our eyes, it’s unacceptable to see a need, have the ability to fill it, and then turn a blind eye,” the Harveys say. “Our children in our communities need us badly. They desire better education, eye-opening cultural experiences and mentors who can influence them and expose them to endless possibilities.”
The youngest of five children born to a West Virginia coal miner and his wife, Steve Harvey stars in the Steve Harvey daytime talk show, hosts the Family Feud game show, has a daily morning radio show, and is the author of several best-selling relationship-advice books published by HarperCollins.
About the mentorship camp at his ranch, Harvey says “bringing the young men out here, out of their everyday surroundings, is an experience that gives them the opportunity to recharge and renew themselves, taking part in a program focused solely on them… to help them discover their potential and build the successful futures they’re meant for.”
Typically during the first few days of camp, “the kids aren’t responsive, but they get some tough love to break down the walls,” says volunteer Frank Hallum, a writer and talent coordinator with the Steve Harvey World Group. “Then they have fun activities, building acceptance: Team-build, eat, hear a dynamic speaker, play, team-build again.”
The initial defensiveness comes from fear, Hallum says. “The Army volunteers come at them aggressively, getting them off the bus, giving them specific firm direction. It gets their attention. Then we start massaging their brains. At first, getting at that deep tissue may hurt. After a while it starts feeling good and they start opening up. Now, it’s not so bad to listen and team-build. By about the third day they are in it, things start to click.
“What I do after the program is over is hook them up with a male mentor. They are ready to receive that support at that point. We can see the difference in them,” he says.
One speaker at last year’s camp was Dallas-based pastor Rickie Rush, who acknowledged to the assembled group that sometimes “as boys who are going to be men, you go through things that people just don’t understand.”
Rush explained that his mother died when he was young. His grief ultimately resulted in attitude problems.
“I was going down a one-way street backward, full speed ahead,” said Rush, author of May I Have Your Order, Please? How to Get What You Want from God (RGR Publishing, 2005). But at some point, Rush said he decided that if he didn’t straighten himself out, his mother’s death would’ve been for nothing.
“Everyone repeat after me: U-turns.”
“U-turns,” the boys responded.
“Are allowed,” Rush said.
“What does that mean? It means even if I am heading down the wrong path, I can turn around. You can turn around.”
Not every participant becomes a raging success story, but the experience provides life-changing contacts for many young men.
Joshua Tillman is a prime example. While attending a taping of Harvey’s Family Feud in 2011, he asked Harvey about the camp during an off-air Q&A segment. Harvey asked if he was planning to apply, and Tillman said yes. “Then you are there,” Harvey told him.
The timing was optimal for 15-year-old Tillman, whose father walked out after he was born. His mother was a college student in North Carolina at the time. “My father tried to have a DNA test on me when I was 5, trying to say I wasn’t his. He denied me until I was 15, when I went to live with him and his girlfriend and her four other kids in a three-bedroom apartment, sleeping on a couch.”
Tensions led to a physical altercation with his father over some school progress reports, Tillman says, at which time “he called me a liar.” Soon after, Tillman came to camp. “I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t have a relationship with my father. I was jealous of other kids because they had that and I didn’t. Talking about sex, growth stuff, and girl problems with your mom is uncomfortable.”
After the 2012 camp, doors started opening for Tillman, who met James Bailey, CEO of Operation Hope Atlanta, who offered him an internship in his Atlanta offices and later a summer job. He also was selected during Black History Month 2012 as one of the Coca-Cola Pay It Forward celebrity apprenticeship winners, which involved another internship. The Steve & Marjorie Harvey Foundation also hired him as a social media specialist.
Tillman articulates an admirable plan for his life. After college he wants to enroll in the Teach for America program and then earn a master’s degree before starting his own charter school.
After attending the Harvey camp in 2012, Tillman returned as a counselor in 2013. “I’ve been through some of the same stuff,” he explains, “and I can share with them my experiences and how I got through those times.”