The Story and Essence of Crossover Mission

by Cathy De Schouwer  2015 

In order to understand the unique nature of Crossover Mission, it is as important to understand the unlikely cultural breakthrough that started Crossover as it is to understand the daily work we do with at-risk young people in our community.  It is the cultural “Crossover” that makes our daily work effective.

BACKGROUND

I am Cathy Willis De Schouwer, a native of Vero Beach.  I graduated with honors from Vero Beach Senior High School and went on to earn a Masters Degree in Business and Accounting from University of Florida, followed by CPA licensure.  I worked for KPMG as a auditor for two years and then went into private industry, eventually landing in international sales/marketing.  I operated since 1998 between Belgium and the U.S. trading between Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S.   My husband and I have been business owners in the field of produce import/export for 12 years operating here in Vero Beach. 

Crossover Mission started with the Jennings and De Schouwer sons and their love of basketball.  One black and one white child, Antoine Jennings Jr (AJ) and Louis De Schouwer are friends and teammates from two different cross-sections of our town.  It was two years ago that Antoine Sr. began training my son, Louis, in basketball with his own son, AJ, twice per week at South County and Gifford Parks with other black kids playing street ball.

The fact that Antoine, a 6’5” black man with a gangster/athlete persona, agreed to train my son, and the fact that I would even consider calling him in the first place was the first Crossover.  It was strange and uncomfortable as Antoine will tell you; his world rarely intersected with white people on a social level and there were almost no black people in my life.  This unlikely intersection started a chain reaction culminating in a life-changing business partnership and a period of deep cultural growth and understanding that has united two families, over 40 volunteers, 100+ kids, two churches and cooperation with two elementary schools, two middle schools and the Freshman Learning Center, so far.

My son, Louis, excitedly began training with Antoine Jr. and Coach Jennings and was immediately confronted with being the only white kid among tough and bigger black kids.  It was hard and awkward.   

As Louis’ mother, I was nervous about being in Gifford and Oslo, the black sections of town and known for drug dealing and violence.  I wondered, was it safe? And I had no intention of leaving my son out there unprotected, so I sat there as the only white lady with the other black moms.  It was uncomfortable and strange but in the end, those black moms were friendly and open to me.  In fact, I became friends with Antoine’s wife, Fallon, and my two girls became friends with their daughter, Avonti.  Those friendships to this day are something I treasure and lean on for cultural clarity as we navigate the rough waters of trying to effect change.      

I could tell Antoine was an excellent coach early on by the way he studied my son and the strategies he taught Louis, tailored to his size and strengths.  I was continually impressed with the emphasis Antoine placed on being a team player and being humble.  He was teaching life lessons and that made an impression on Louis and on me.  Antoine agreed to reach out and coach a recreation basketball team and he brought that mixed and scruffy team of beginners with one black son and one white son to a miraculous, undefeated first season and only one loss the second season.     

One day, Antoine shared his heavy and troubled life story and his vision for Crossover with me.  As a young boy, he experienced his father going to prison, his mother’s instability while trying to raise five children alone without a job.  It was extreme poverty and the kids were mainly unsupervised.  Antoine was a fabulous basketball player and it was the one source of stability and accomplishment in his life.  Nevertheless, he made bad choices over and over, without guidance and support, which ultimately lost him the opportunity to play basketball in college and beyond.  As a result, after high school he spiraled downward and with no education or skills he turned to drug dealing to earn money.  It was a dangerous lifestyle.  One night he was violently robbed and as he lay face-down with a gun to his head, he realized the shame and waste of his life and the tragedy it would be for his two children if he died.  Miraculously, Antoine’s life was spared that night almost five years ago and since, he has turned it around.  It is Antoine’s life wish to reach out to kids like himself who could not afford the GYAC programs or the Boys and Girls Club.  He wanted to reach kids who did not have the family support, resources, transportation and grades necessary to engage in recreation or school sports.  He wanted to reach the kids who were being confronted with incarcerated and absent parents, kids being lured by drug dealers in the neighborhoods, those facing extreme poverty and rough life challenges, like he faced as a child.

Antoine had been trying to form Crossover Mission for several years but could not get traction with any local gym facilities.  Upon hearing this, and being deeply moved by Antoine’s conviction, I offered to help.  I made inquiries and was able to open the door in a matter of days with the GYAC, much to Antoine’s surprise.  It became evident that both the black and the white face were necessary to make a difference here in our town, Vero Beach. 

We presented the idea of the basketball program to Reverend Bob Baggott of Community Church, and being so moved, Bob took the risk of giving financial aid for the startup of the basketball program.  Antoine’s pastor and mentor, Greg Pitts then agreed to come on as business advisor and first Board Member of Crossover Mission. So began the development of Crossover Mission in March 2014.  One black family and one white family bonded together in a community development mission with the support of our churches.  Crossover Mission works because of this unique union. 

So what is the specific goal of Crossover Mission?

We aim to serve an unmet need in the black community.  Over 1500 young people are not served or reached by the existing programs.  The community itself is faltering.  The black community in IRC has 43% of its population living in poverty with 10% of those families subsisting on earnings of less than $10,000/year.  The family unit has weakened to the extent that 70% of all black babies are born out of wedlock in IRC.  Educational achievement is low with only 52% of black males graduating from high school and black students making up the majority of remedial students in the county. Unemployment percentages for black individuals in Indian River County are twice that of white individuals.  Black youth are exposed to drugs and drug trafficking as a way of life in the lowest socio-economic sector from very young ages.  Mix poverty, low education and a weak family unit and you have increased crime.  One in three black males can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.  These statistics are dreadfully sad and unacceptable for the citizens of Gifford and of IRC, for the State of Florida and for our Nation!  At Crossover Mission we are reaching into the black community to speak to the most at-risk young people and their parents.  Antoine is a face and has a story they can relate to and believe in.  Antoine’s face opens the door and mine is a face that brings structure, support and education.  Together the two faces work. 

Basketball draws in kids and adults!  Because of it, Crossover Mission has developed a solid core of kids actively enrolled in the program.  Antoine and his coaches train at the GYAC and at Storm Grove Middle School on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and host basketball events on weekends.  As of January 1 of this year, and thanks to a very generous donor, Antoine is working full time with Crossover, and is able to extend his reach in basketball, outreach and mentoring in the community and in the school system. 

Participants enrolled in Crossover Mission are receiving one-on-one scholastic or course recovery tutoring as needed and indicated by grades and performance.  For students who need it, we provide additional private tutoring and advocacy within the school system and with teachers and administrators.  We ask ourselves over and over again when the going gets tough, who follows up with the most at-risk children when their parents are missing or are inconsistent or barely educated themselves?  The teachers in the school system are limited in time and quite frankly, they become disillusioned with the continual misbehavior of these same kids.  These kids need a parent-like advocate who watches their progress each week and holds them accountable.  This is what Crossover Mission does and we aim to shape independent learners and self-advocates of the Crossover kids in time.

When we started Crossover Mission a year ago, 80% of our student/players were failing one or more courses, 10% of those were failing the grade and another 50% were squeaking by with Cs and Ds.  Most were performing two years or more behind grade level.  In one year, we have seen an improvement of nearly one letter grade across the board for our students and no students who attended consistently during the 2014-15 school year have failed the grade.  It has been hard and an up-and-down process but progress is being made. 

In basketball, only 5% of our middle school kids were academically eligible to participate in school athletics last year.  In addition, most lacked confidence to even try out despite superior athleticism.  We also learned that 10% did not have access/transportation to obtain the health exam required to try out and they were too embarrassed to admit it.  Most of our kids had been accustomed to street basketball and had no training in the essentials of working on a team, learning and executing plays, physical stamina, attitude and coachability.  Crossover Mission is about training the kids to open their minds, to work hard and as a team and to be strong and aware.  Starting into the second school year, 90% of our middle school students are academically eligible to participate in school sports and with improved skills and confidence combined with physicals and paperwork in order, all plan to try out!  We are pleased.

Last summer, our 10% oldest and most at-risk students were put in an intensive summer academic boot camp in which they were guided through recovery of two failed courses each.  In this program, they were able to turn their failing grades into A’s and B’s.  We have continued to work throughout the school year with these kids, accompanying them to orientations and collaborating with parents and teachers, meeting with guidance counselors and pushing for weekly accountability.  All of these kids have passed 8th grade and are moving on to high school.  

What happens in the academic mentoring program each week is more than just homework help.  Antoine, the coaches and all of our 40+ academic mentors continually challenge our students to visualize the height of their potential.  Mrs. Michelle Willis, Curriculum and Education Specialist for Crossover Mission, has developed the curriculum used in the Academic Mentoring Program aimed at building literacy and developing growth mindsets and habits of character that lead to academic success. Michelle has a Masters’ Degree in Education and is a retired teacher/administrator from the Indian River School District.  She has written several books and has developed educational apps available on iTunes.  All Crossover players who have one or more D’s or F’s on their report cards are required to attend weekly academic mentoring.  All Crossover players are invited to attend academic mentoring, even if they are honor roll students.  There is only a minimal cost of $25/year to be a member of Crossover Mission, however, students must continually work toward academic improvement in order to play in scrimmages and games.  They must volunteer in Crossover community service projects and help run tournaments and Crossover events. 

Improvements for some students have come dramatically with added support and for others growth comes more slowly.  We believe in the long-term commitment to the student players as in a family and it is our vision to follow them through high school and beyond. 

The first year of Crossover, our program including our many meetings has been run from our homes, private offices, our churches, IHOP and the Dockside Grill, just to name a few.  The next step in the Crossover vision is to expand our program into classrooms at the Center of Joy’s soon to be renovated facility in the heart of Gifford on 45th Street in 2016.  The Center of Joy is a beautiful church facility to be used by the Gifford community for activities and care, a beautiful place to be open 7 days a week for the people.  The Center of Joy has plans to house additional Crossover activities, a weekly food pantry and Healthy Start in addition to church activities, upon completion of its renovation.  

In some ways, I am surprised to see that Antoine and Crossover is making an impact in such a short period of time.  Antoine drew in over 50 kids from Gifford and Oslo into the basketball program in the first two months of Crossover’s existence, strictly through personal connections and word of mouth.  He has motivated troubled parents to take uncomfortable steps to get their kids involved. He has inspired members of his own family and many friends to take on personal growth and commitment and get married and create family stability.  He has tremendous reach into the Gifford Community and the families who need help.  Yes, in a sense I am surprised at Antoine’s impact, …but then again, I am not. From the very first conversation I had with Antoine, I was haunted by his words and his potential.  He has inspired me and his willingness to discuss difficult racial issues has educated me.  I am honored to count Antoine as my dear friend and partner in Crossover Mission. 

At this time of cultural unrest between black and white people across the country, police shootings, riots, long-lived anger, distrust, fear and separation locally, Crossover Mission is the story of two Indian River County families, black and white, who have bridged the gap of socioeconomics and culture in efforts to reach out to young people in our region.  Both the black family and the white family are necessary to make an impact in our community.  Our program is built first on understanding and acceptance and continues strong through trust, faith and solidarity toward our belief that we can and must reach out to our brothers and sisters in need. 

Cathy De Schouwer
Crossover Mission, Inc.
1965 42nd Avenue, Suite 3
Vero Beach, FL 32960-2502
Tel: (772) 321-0449