Thelma Moton helping 501 youth 'Excel'

by Carla Adair Hendricks

While many of her fellow baby boomers enjoy frequent vacations, channel surfing and simply sleeping in for the first time in life, Thelma Moton of Conway spends her days and boundless energy pouring into the lives of young people across Central Arkansas.

Having recently celebrated her 40th anniversary to her sweetheart, Danny, this mother of 11 and grandmother of 15 leads “Choosing to Excel” (Excel), the nonprofit she founded 21 years ago to educate and encourage youth to make healthy life choices. While stressing the benefits of education and goal-setting, Excel also encourages abstinence from premarital sex, drugs and alcohol.

“Kids matter, and kids need to know that they matter,” said Moton, explaining the driving force behind her starting Excel. “Some kids feel trapped because they make certain choices. And parents need assistance to learn how to start over. You can stop. You can start over. That was the driving force.”

Back in 1991, Moton says she never planned to start a nonprofit to serve her community. Yet the Twin Groves native, who began her school career in segregated Arkansas schools, had big dreams for the young people in her community.

“I had no desire to do Excel. I was looking at the little girls in my neighborhood making bad choices, some of the choices I had made, and I said someone had to step in.”

And step in she did. With a small army of women alongside her, she developed a mentoring program for those young girls. Eventually a teacher at Conway Junior High School heard about the small mentorship program and asked Moton to begin speaking to the school’s female students.

“So we began one-day workshops with guest speakers. The kids started responding, and the principal said, ‘I think the boys need to hear this.’ Then other schools started to hear. We did this for seven years with no funding, just the local community, volunteers and speakers that would give of their time.”

At that seven-year mark, a twist of fate linked Excel to Dr. James Dobson’s ministry, Focus on the Family. After reading an article written by a grateful Excel parent, Focus on the Family staff members contacted Moton and encouraged her to seek government funding available to nonprofits like hers. Mike Huckabee, a great supporter of character training for young people, just happened to be serving as Arkansas governor at the time.

“Excel started this way, and we’re still here 21 years later,” she beams.

A lot has happened in those 21 years. Though Excel began in Conway Public Schools, the program has grown exponentially to include Morrilton, Greenbrier, Mayflower, Vilonia, Hot Springs and a few schools in Little Rock. Excel’s motto is “Impacting lives, making a difference, one life at a time,” and today that goal impacts many lives across Central Arkansas.

Excel’s program consists of four major components: the Encourager Program, Healthy Families of Arkansas, the Summer Component and the Character Club.

The Encourager Program matches students with community members for weekly mentoring meetings. College students, recent graduates, young professionals, middle-agers and even retirees offer their time and advice to middle and high school students during these vital one-hour meetings that usually take place at the students’ respective schools.

Healthy Families of Arkansas serves pregnant and parenting teens. “Once these girls become pregnant, their chance of graduation dramatically decreases. We come alongside these girls, provide resources for them and help them enroll in some type of formal education. Our goal is to break the cycle of poverty and hopefully prevent a second or third pregnancy.”

The Summer Component, or “Summer Impact,&rdqu
o; offered in Conway, serves boys and girls age seven to 16. When many children would be home alone during the summer months, Excel offers this fun and engaging summer camp with weekly field trips and swimming. They are tremendously grateful for the University of Central Arkansas and Hendrix College, which offer pools for weekly swimming for the campers, and for Pleasant Branch Baptist Church, which offers its facilities each summer. Moton says Pleasant Branch is their strongest partner for summer camp, and they couldn’t offer camp without them.

The Character Club consists of GEMS (Girls Eagerly Maintaining Standards) and MOCQ (Men of Character and Quality), small group rap sessions focused on making healthy life choices. Character Clubs are held weekly in various schools during lunch, before school or after school. Character Clubs were created by Thelma’s beloved son, Dandrick, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 33.

“Dandrick was a major player in helping to establish Excel. He was part of Excel’s first leadership group. Dandrick said, ‘Mom, there are people that think that black men can’t graduate and make healthy choices, and I want to prove them wrong.’ So he worked with high school boys at lunch time, took students on trips to Morehouse College, Spelman and Atlanta University, helped us create our leadership component and raised money for us through his speaking engagements throughout the country.”

While encouraging other young people to excel, Dandrick made his own mark on his community, attending UCA on a basketball scholarship and earning his master’s degree as a fellow at Arizona State. His life stands as a testimony to utilizing one’s entire life — no matter how long or short — to set an example for others and encourage them to lead lives of character.

Dandrick’s dream for young men lives on in his mother’s heart. “I have a heart for our African American boys. They are falling behind in every area. We have to encourage them to increase their academics and stay in school. That’s one of my biggest heartaches. When I see the number of African American and Hispanic boys that drop out of school and often end up incarcerated, I want to help them become contributors and not takers or burdens on society.”

And as Dandrick would often say, Moton says she’ll keep encouraging young people to “keep the end in mind.” She will also continue to fight for the children that others have given up on.

“We have to believe in the young people that no one else does,” Moton said, echoing the famous words of John Lewis, a civil rights leader and U.S. Representative. “If not us, then who?”