Myles Garrett has written poetry since he was a child. He still writes poems on a weekly basis, and he uses his writing to take his mind elsewhere and put his feelings on paper.
Garrett spent Thursday afternoon reading poems and talking about life experiences in a video call with a small group of kids from Open Doors Academy, a youth development after-school program in Cleveland that works to protect, inspire, nurture and challenge youths to reach their full potential. The program is committed to breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty and serves over 500 youth and 1,600 family members through a comprehensive pipeline model of 5th grade through post-secondary completion.
Kids on the call with Garrett leaned closer to their screen and listened as he told them stories about his childhood. Garrett offered the kids career and life advice, asked about their interests and life goals and listened to poems written by each of the kids.
"He was so amazing," said Dr. Dorothy Moulthrop, the Chief Executive Officer of ODA. "He was so encouraging to each of them and so easy to talk to. It was just beautiful to see. I think they are going to remember this forever, just to talk with him like a person and how he was sharing so much about his life and what he's done and what it took to get there."
As kids shared their life goals, Garrett asked questions about how they planned to get there. The goals ranged from making a personal YouTube channel to becoming a football player, and Garrett asked questions to learn more about what drives each of them.
For ODA, Garrett's conversation was a special highlight among a difficult summer that has featured plenty of changes due to safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although in-person interactions in the academy began last week, many kids in the program have spent time at home and haven't been able to receive the face-to face interaction that ODA values in its program.
"Our kids have been in a really weird space since March with school being closed down," said Ed Stockhausen, the Chief Advancement Officer. "They haven't been able to connect with a lot of the adults they're used to having present in their lives or hear from them in the ways they're used to. Having someone like Myles engage with them on a personal level reminds them that they matter."
Stockhausen first spoke with Garrett in May. Garrett had seen racial justice protests in Cleveland and across the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, and he wanted to use his platform as an NFL player to create positive change through connecting with children. When Stockhausen informed Garrett about ODA's goals and mission, Garrett was all for it. He wanted to speak with kids and begin a relationship with the program.
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But he didn't want to do it in a traditional way. Rather than visiting kids at a school or throwing a football around, he wanted to create a more informal setting that would lead to kids feeling as comfortable as possible to speak with him and share their experiences.
So they came up with poetry.
"(The kids) spent the whole week on the theme about connecting Cleveland, and Myles' contribution and presence built on that," Stockhausen said. "He has a huge following and personality, and the Browns are something that connects our entire region. So many of our kids want to be all-star athletes. They see themselves in him. In getting to engage with him — especially in poetry and in something different — it emphasizes the work that we spent to enforce literacy skills and social learning."
Now, ODA and Garrett hope to build their relationship further. Moulthrop expressed interest in holding another intimate meeting with Garrett in the future to further expand his relationship with kids in the program.
"We believe that education is the way for kids to break through the cycle of poverty, and that we need to develop their academic growth, potential and confidence in themselves," she said. "Just listening to him engage with the kids, I could just see through talking with them that they were sitting up straight and were really engaged."
Garrett, of course, was just as engaged with the kids when he learned about their stories and goals. At the end of the call, he shared two poems he wrote — both were about love — and offered one final message.
"I love your hobbies and I love your passions," Garrett said. "I hope you continue to grow toward them and achieve goals every day, every week and every month. Just keep on moving forward."