For the past two years, the Cleveland Indians have honored great leaders in the community with the Mentor of the Year award. This year, two John Carroll University seniors, Ned Barnes and Michael Gong, received the prestigious title.
Barnes and Gong were recognized for their creation and expansion of the Carroll Ballers, a mentoring program for incarcerated young adults. Each week, 75 JCU students play basketball and lead discussions with young men and women at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center.
“We’ve been at this for the past three years now, since the fall of 2012. The idea started in a dorm room, and now, we have the capacity for 75 students to participate,” said Barnes. The goal of the program is to use basketball to connect and make genuine relationships.”
Vice President for University Advancement Doreen Riley nominated the pair for the award. Barnes and Gong were contacted by the Cleveland Indians over winter break with the news that the pair had been named finalists for the award.
“Next thing you know, we’re down at Progressive Field to shoot a video for the contest,” Barnes said. “It was an open competition to the public, and people were able to vote online.”
After the voting period closed, Barnes and Gong were contacted again to be named winners of the 2015 Mentor of the Year award. On Jan. 24, they were recognized by Terry Francona at Tribe Fest, an event for Cleveland Indians fans.
Gong noted that the award will help with the future of the Carroll Ballers. “It’s a big stepping stone for the program to have a professional sports organization recognize us,” said Gong. “It really speaks a lot for all of the participants. Everybody who is in it right now should be the Mentors of the Year. The success comes out of everybody, and all of the involvement and commitment on a weekly basis is incredible.”
Many of the students involved spend multiple days per week at the Juvenile Detention Center with the Carroll Ballers. There are eight sessions every week, two for women and six for men.
“It’s nice to have the individual recognition, but when it comes down to it, we wouldn’t cover as much ground without our great participants,” said Barnes. “There are a lot of people, male and female, who deserve a lot of credit, from freshmen to seniors.”
Two of the student leaders from the girls’ division of the Carroll Ballers program are junior Jackie Sosnowski and sophomore Becky Barsa.
“Carroll Ballers breaks down barriers and creates a unique respect between everyone, emphasizing that we are all a “team” – there’s no “their side” and “our side”; we’re all one team working together towards the betterment of these kids’ lives,” said Barsa.
Along with this recent award, the Carroll Ballers also expanded the program to another detention center this year. In addition, a group of students from The Ohio State University came to watch a session of the program in order to create a similar program at their school.
“People say imitation is the highest form of praise, and I think that just speaks for it,” said Gong. “This is a population of kids that is normally overlooked. You’d drive past that building, and never know what it was otherwise.”
Barnes stressed the importance the program places on breaking down racial barriers. “We have a sense of unity and kinship,” said Barnes. “We don’t care if you’re black, white, Hispanic or Asian. It doesn’t matter, we are all people.”
After receiving the 2015 Mentor of the Year award, the Carroll Ballers have an opportunity to gain more publicity and recognition of the group’s overall goal within the Cleveland community.
“It puts us on the map, and it might make people in Cleveland realize that this is an issue that needs attention,” said Gong. “The kids in there have a lot of potential, and we need to invest in that potential.”
After Barnes and Gong graduate, the Carroll Ballers program will be led by juniors Justin Bland, Thomas Boretsky and Patrick Vecellio.
Barnes and Gong noted that, in addition to all those involved in the Carroll Ballers, they would not have been able to make these achievements without Associate Professor in the Tim Russert Department of Communications and Theatre Arts Margaret Finucane, and the support of the entire JCU community.