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Focus on New Orleans: Time Out with Jermaine Wiltz AKA Coach J

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My guest today is Jermaine Wiltz, Program Director of Just the Right Attitude [JTRA]. JTRA is a combination food bank/soup kitchen operating in New Orleans since 1999, long before Hurricane Katrina hit. Welcome to OpEdNews, Jermaine. For those not familiar with JTRA, can you give us a little background?

Jermaine, AKA Coach J

We are a food bank and mobile kitchen. We were designed to give aid to individuals and families based on need and not finances. We provide groceries and hot meals to whoever comes through our doors. We also provide hot meals to the elderly.

That mobile kitchen is new since I was down there last year. Although JTRA is the biggest food bank/soup kitchen of its kind in NOLA, you don't accept federal money. Why not?

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Those monies weren't available to us at one point. And quite frankly, we enjoy our independence. We answer to the people we help. Not some cold government agency who is out of touch with the people.

Well, it's clear that you are answering a need, Jermaine. I understand that you distributed 1.3 million pounds of food to over 200,000 individuals just in 2009. And it's clear with the tanking economy and now the BP oil spill, that there will be work for JTRA to do, long into the future. You grew up here in New Orleans and went on to play football at Tulane. Your love of football has continued long after you left the university. Can you tell our readers about that?

Football has been and always will be my first love. I was introduced to the game as a child by my father and never let go. After college, I kept my dream alive by playing semi-pro football for a local team called the New Orleans Knights. It was fun but you had to cash your check before anyone else!

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You had a chance for the big time at one point. What happened?

A broken leg and bad timing. I learned to move on because it really wasn't my purpose in my life to be a professional athlete. I'd like to think I had beaten the odds just having the opportunity to continue my dream. Once I was injured, I knew I had to move on and not get caught up in the "what if."

You make light of it now, but I'm sure it was a difficult time for you. Even with a broken leg, you didn't let go of football. You just gave up dreams for yourself and began directing them elsewhere, to great effect. Please talk about that, Jermaine.

I began coaching and mentoring young men in 1999. At that time, I felt I could give back. I was young with a lot of ideas about changing the world. I thought I could reach the next generation through sports. The neighborhood I grew up in changed dramatically over the years. Between drugs, unemployment, and hopelessness, kids really didn't have any real-life role models. I felt that by going back into the community, kids could understand there was another way to accomplish success. I was blessed to have both parents. Today, a two-parent household is a rarity in my old neighborhood, unfortunately.

So, tell us more. How did it go? What kind of mentoring model did you use? Walk us through it.

It really began as a way to fulfill needs. As I began coaching, I saw the lack of resources these kids were exposed to. New Orleans Recreational Department [NORD] wasn't - and still isn't - doing enough. Throwing out a football or basketball is just the tip of the iceberg. I wanted these kids to take pride in themselves and the area they live in. I put a lot of my own money into the programs and began delving deeper into these kids' lives. I monitor grades and visit schools.

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My kids understand the value of community service. I take them throughout the community, lending a helping hand. My kids venture out into the world with a sense of pride and purpose. Currently, there are 17 young men who are in Division 1 programs around the country. What's amazing to me is they all come back. They have begun to mentor the younger kids. It's funny to listen to them say the exact same things I'd tell them. They often say now I'm getting soft in my old age. Hilarious.

Seventeen kids in Division 1 programs - that's really something. Even more striking is how you show them that you care. What's your mentoring technique? How do you reach these tough kids? Are you Mr. Nice Guy, gruff or something in between, and how does it work?

Each kid is different. Each situation is different. But I am very much a disciplinarian. I believe that there should always be checks and balances.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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