Cordel Garrett doesn’t know how his life might have turned out if he hadn’t met the mentor who became like his dad.
So close was his relationship with John Rhymes that he lived with Rhymes’ family. Today Garrett resides in Georgia and works full-time with the goal of eventually becoming a social worker.
“He supported me through some tough circumstances that I have had to face and, in turn, he has helped to create an undying light in me that may one day lead the way for others,” Garrett once wrote of his mentor.
Rhymes’ work motivating and inspiring youth ages 12 to 18 to achieve personal excellence will be on full display Saturday, June 16 at the 10 a.m. “Fatherly Breakfast,” at Living Word Ministry, 2001 West Carpenter Road. Elder Kirk Whitmore, Living Word Ministry’s pastor, will give the keynote address, and motivational speaker Shon Hart, owner of Live Inspired, will also share a message.
Like Garrett, other men Rhymes helped mentor through the non-profit, Flint-based Institute of RHYMES are expected to attend the breakfast, but the event is free and open to anyone.
“We called it the Fatherly Breakfast because we didn’t want anyone to feel like they couldn’t come without a father,” he says.
Like the Flint-area youth he has positively influenced, Rhymes wants young guests to hear a message from other men, especially guests who haven’t benefited from male role models.
“I have a wife and two daughters and I can’t even tell you how many young men affectionately call me ‘dad,’” says Rhymes.
But the surrogate father to so many didn’t set out to mentor youth 33 years ago when he began the work for which he’s become known. A Mississippi native, he’d only recently returned to Flint after being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War when he started teaching at the former Stewart Elementary School. At Stewart he reported to Clara Smith, “a very stern principal,” he remembers.
“I would shake when she came to my door,” he says laughing.
One day when Rhymes learned Smith wanted to speak with him he got nervous.
He remembers thinking, “Oh, my goodness,” but Smith’s topic of discussion helped launched him toward his calling.
The principal told him about Greg, a student who’d been kicked out of school, and asked if Rhymes would take on a mentoring relationship with him. Rhymes agreed and the next day he and Greg began a bond facilitated through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
He later joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and mentored youth through its Kappa Leadership League. He also mentored through the National Sorority of Phi Delta Gamma’s Gamma Delta Kudos organization. But his primary focus became the Institute of RHYMES (Reaching and Helping Young Minorities Excel and Succeed). Through workshops, events like “step” dance routine performances and one-on-one interaction, the Institute of RHYMES has left a lasting impact on the lives of many young men and their families.
“Other people saw it in me, and they came to me and started asking about mentoring,” Rhymes says.
Along with his full-time work as a Flint Community Schools employee, he became more immersed in advocacy through the years. Rhymes retired from Flint Community Schools in 2003 as a principal and went on to oversee the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Center, now the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village, mentoring and teaching business and entrepreneurship principles to participants in the Center’s Amistad Academy.
“I think I have saved the lives of a lot of young people,” he says, noting that Garrett wasn’t the only youth to move into his family’s residence.
Molding winning attitudes in youth, even in the midst of difficult family and life situations, has become a talent Rhymes enjoys expressing. As part of the Fatherly Breakfast, he says he’ll use conventional wisdom that it takes 21 days to break a habit as a way to challenge the guests there, asking them to strive toward personal goals and report their success in 21 days.
“My goal this year is to try to empower the young men to really make some commitments about their lives,” Rhymes says.
He has received support locally, including Ruth Mott Foundation funding, but events like the Fatherly Breakfast are supported by raffle ticket sales and other personal acts of devotion. Rhymes says the end result – making life-changing connections – is worth the sacrifices.
“I know there’s something about me that they say, ‘I can tell that, if I work this man, he’s going to lead me in the right direction,’” Rhymes says.