Dominique Reese grew up in Auburn, attended Auburn High School and eventually moved out of state. The call to the Plains, however, was strong, and he thought often of returning to the loveliest village.
Reese grew up in a single-parent home, though he also lived in the same house as his grandparents. His mother worked at a prison on 12-hour shifts, and she had an hour to commute each way.
This time was a sacrifice she was willing to make to provide for her family. She realized, however, that Reese and his siblings would need other people in their lives.
Throughout his adolescence and young adulthood, Reese had mentors through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, as well as his teacher Kimberly Roberts, and George Eckles, who attended his church.
These mentors helped to build Reese into the man he is today, and now he is trying to pay that back.
“I was lucky to kind of have had that relationship beyond just grade school, and when I got into college I was able to call and ask questions and then prepare to go into corporate (life) after college,” Reese said. “It was just huge having that foundation.”
While living in Mobile, Reese decided to put a plan of his into action: Create a mentor program in Auburn.
He said that while moving around for his different jobs over the years, he noticed crime and violence wherever he was; however, he always assumed Auburn was different.
Reese eventually realized that the same things were happening in Auburn that happened elsewhere across the country. So he started Advancing Adolescents.
“If you take away the Auburn/Opelika headline and you read the quote, it’s the same stuff that’s happening in the larger cities, young adults killing each other and the violent crimes,” he said. “It was just something that I wasn’t accustomed to when I talked about the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
“It was something that now, our city as rapidly as its growing, we have to have something to have a positive impact on the kids and to make sure that we’re giving them the opportunity to go down the right path.”
Advancing Adolescents, also known as A Squared, is a mentoring group for middle schoolers in Auburn meant to shape them into productive, happy, healthy adults.
One mother, Akilah Hatfield, enrolled her child, ChàKil Hatfield, after he brought home some program materials from school.
“ChàKil is real shy, and he’s been able to open up a lot more, with being around the mentors and his peers and a little bit more comfortable with interacting and being more social,” Akita Hatfield said.
Reese founded the nonprofit with a core group of mentors who have made the commitment to be a part of these children’s lives.
One of them, former educator Dwight Howard, said he joined Advancing Adolescents to make a difference in the community.
“I wanted to assist them with instilling values and having a sense of commitment within the community and a sense of belonging,” Howard said.
As the group grows, so will the ages included.
Next year, the organization will add high school freshmen, eventually supporting these children through high school.
“The goal of the program is to have that mentorship that’s not a flash in the pan, that’s only here for a year or two, but to kind of have that lifelong relationship in which we can provide a service for the kids,” Reese said.
Advancing Adolescents meets twice a month, every other Friday at a local church, True Deliverance, which donates the space.
Reese said they try to teach both hard and soft skills. They work on things like choosing decent friends and making good choices, while also working on skills that will benefit the children tangibly.
“One of the things I’ve been able to teach them is to be disciplined, be responsible for your own actions,” Howard said. “The program has done a lot of things like letter writing, things like introducing yourself to an authority, how do you greet an authority.
The program has introduced young boys and girls to role models within the community, professionals within the community.”
So far the kids have learned how to cook some basic items that they can make for themselves, such as eggs in a mug, or how to tie a tie.
Although the meetings are fun, there are also expectations for the children, Reese said.
“So the rules are very, very simple at first,” he said. “So it’s to be kind, be nice to others, treat others with respect, but to build on that we want to ensure that they knew that they are a representation of not only their family, but now A Squared as a family.
So we want to ensure that the way that we carry ourselves in the program, while we’re meeting every other Friday, it’s the same way that we carry ourselves at school.”
Reese said they try to support the children in their school activities, too.
This involves having permission from parents to be contacted by teachers at the schools. If a child is having a problem, Advancing Adolescents can get involved to help them. They also help with tutoring.
“I thought (ChàKil) being exposed to a program like that would definitely help him to be a well-rounded black man and an individual and a human being,” Akita Hatfield said. “Being able to engage with others and learning how to engage with his peers and mentors and adults and being in a different environment outside of his family.”
Outside of academics, the group shows up to cheer on members during football games.
“I told them when we first launched, ‘Now y’all have 40 new brothers and sisters,’ and that’s just kind of the vibe that we want to set and instill and let them know that ‘whatever you’re doing, we’re here to support,’” he said.
Some of the new students are joining because of good reviews thus far from others.
“So it’s one thing for me to say how great this program is that I’m a part of, you should really, really allow your kid to participate, but it’s a different feeling when you hear from a parent that has nothing to gain by your child enrolling in the program and to talk about just the strides that their kids have made, whether it’s through academics or social or behavior by just being in the program since February.”
There is a core group of mentors and then also drop-in mentors, those who can’t make a commitment to stay with the children all the way through high school.
“The kids look forward to (the drop-in mentors), but they know that, hey, this person’s not going to be here every meeting, so it’s really unique but it works for what we’re doing,” Reese said. “And it’s pretty cool to see new people come in with fresh ideas and bring in a different vision for the program that we may not have seen.”