SWFL Young Men Learning to go Beyond Hope
Hope is never enough. It can't comfort a scared young man in court. Or stop conversations from escalating into arguments. Or forgive a wayward father. Something more is required.
A group of local young men are learning what's beyond hope through their involvement with Pickup the Ball, a non-profit organization in Lee County that helps them find their way.
"Drowning in my blessings."
Music changed Anthony Linarez. "I wasn't walking the right steps," he says.
The wrong steps sent Anthony to prison in 2018. His freedom suspended; Anthony began writing songs. His early lyrics told of street life, but as his faith grew, his raps changed. Selling drugs wasn't the only way to survive. Education, music and faith were worth trying.
His debt to society paid, Anthony returned to Fort Myers in May 2021, and reached out to long-time friend Ted Sottong. Ted, a local architect, formed Pickup the Ball, in 2009. Ted tried to help Anthony back then. He even flew to New Jersey to stand with Anthony in court.
"When I had no one to turn to, Ted was there," Anthony says. "He was one of the few that kept in touch."
Ted welcomed Anthony home and encouraged him to share his story at the group's weekly gathering.
"I feel a lot of these guys can probably relate to my story. They can probably see me in them, how I see me in them," Anthony says.
Anthony shared one of his songs with the group:
I'ma stay patient
I'ma stay down
Until I'm drowning in my blessings
I'm tired of all my people dying from a lethal weapon
"They know we're interested in what they have to say."
For two hours on most Mondays, the young men of Pickup the Ball discuss life around pushed-together tables in an aging Fort Myers office building. Family relationships, education goals, and social issues are some of the topics explored with radical candor.
The young men ages 16-24 voluntarily pausing their hyper lives to engage in meaningful conversations isn't wasted on Ted. He thinks the back-and-forth style of communicating in the meetings is a contributing dynamic. "They know we're interested in what they have to say. They're intelligent guys who want to share their opinions and listen to other people's opinions," Ted says.
When disagreements arise, innate respect and shared struggles keep the group out of high conflict. Being on the "right" side of a topic doesn't seem to be worth more than their brotherhood. Instead, they challenge each other to express why they feel the way they do in their own words, not in ones borrowed from social media or rumor mills.
"I know adults who don't know how to have conversations," Ted says. "But these guys listen, give feedback, and agree to disagree," he adds.
"I forgave him."
Owen Esteve, 16, expressed his goals in a hustle-and-flow rhythm. "I'm trying to pass the SAT. You feel me? I'm trying to get A's and B's. You know what I'm saying? Hit the gym. You feel me?"
But before the sound of the Lehigh Senior High School student’s declarations faded, he heard the question asked whenever someone sets a goal. How are you going to reach it?
Helping Owen and others figure out 'how' is a challenge embraced by the community as well.
Eric MacKellar, a local businessman, attends most gatherings and helps the group unpack brainstorming skills. Tim Fenton, the former Chief Operating Officer at the McDonald's Corporation, shares career strategies. Fort Myers Fire Chief Tracy McMillon offers insight on developing perseverance. An SAT instructor teaches test-taking techniques.
Accountability is another principle guiding the group. Each week the young men share progress made on their monthly goals. Wilbur Watson, 16, is uncomfortable talking to people he doesn't know. So, the group recently challenged Wilbur to talk to 20 new folks in a month.
"I did it," Wilbert proudly exclaimed. "No cap (lie). I did it." Researching commercial driver's license requirements, singing at Music Walk, and speaking to large crowds are other goals being pursued by group members.
But not every goal can be achieved in a month. Sterling Carter's took six years.
"I told him how much his leaving hurt my mother and I," Sterling told the group after seeing his father in July for the first time since 2015. A senior at Baptist Bible College in Missouri, Sterling is one of the group's original members.
"He told me why he left and that he was sorry. I forgave him," Sterling expressed before leading the group in prayer. After graduating, Sterling plans to return to Fort Myers and work with the group full-time. Aware of Sterling's goal, Ted is working to expand Pickup the Ball.
"The next step."
The group's discussions are always interesting. But Ted knows when to shelve goal setting and go hoop. With food provided by volunteers, the young men pile into cars headed to the Stars Complex. The basketball courts are usually empty when they arrive around 8:30 p.m. Ted, 54, hooped when he was younger and probably still can, uses this time to think about what Pickup the Ball can become.
"The next step for us is to be a place where young men in the community can not only come and get information and mentoring, but also can give it. And hopefully we can raise enough money that we can start paying those guys to build into the lives of the younger guys coming up," Ted says. A boarding house, enhanced leadership and entrepreneurial training, and an AAU team are also in the works.
Funded primarily by donors, board members and Ted, the organization is also looking into ways to generate revenue and become self-sustaining.
"I see Pickup the Ball becoming whatever the community needs it to be," Ted says.
With endless hope and an evolving strategy, the young men of Pickup the Ball are taking their shot.
Learn more about Pickup the Ball at pickuptheball.org.