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Linda Mah
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Breakfast of Champions Turns 25

King-Westwood Mentoring Program

Show up on time. Look people in the eye. Take pride in your appearance. You can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your attitude.

For 25 years, these have been some of the lessons Jim Hess has shared with boys during his monthly “Breakfast of Champions,” program at King-Westwood Elementary School. He has high expectations for the boys, because they are, after all, “champions.”

“I tell them when people put more expectations on you, that means they think more highly of you,” Hess said.

The group is always a diverse group of 12 boys, chosen to represent their school economically, racially, culturally and socially. They meet monthly for breakfast at Kalamazoo College, where a slew of guest speakers talk to them about life, work, choices, and a focus on one's goals.

Hess said he’s kept the group intentionally small over the years.

“Sometimes something becomes so big, it loses focus and the meaning can get lost,” Hess said. “And, I understand I can’t save the world, but I can make a difference in my part of the world.”

Hess was coaching a baseball team at King-Westwood Elementary when during one game, a boy on another team started bullying kids on Hess’ team. He waited for another adult to confront the boy, and when that didn’t happen, “I went up and said stop doing that.” Hess said as he talked with then principal Patricia Coles-Chalmers about the need to teach children how to behave, he hit upon the idea of “The Breakfast of Champions.”

Through the years, guests have included everyone from Dr. John Dunn and Dr. Jorge Gonzalez, the former president of Western Michigan University and the current president of Kalamazoo College, respectively; Jim Heath, retired president of Stryker Instruments; and Brady Hoke, football coach for the University of Michigan. In November, the guest speakers were spoken word poets Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron of Kinetic Affect, who spoke about their struggles with bullying and cancer and the power of finding something they loved to do in their work as poets.

Kalamazoo Gazette reporter Al Jones said the breakfast meeting is a wonderful opportunity for the young men who attend, but it’s equally important for the event's speakers.

“If you had the chance to tell a dozen young boys something that would really help them — something that will hopefully stick with them for years to come — what would it be?” Jones said. “Finding those words, that phrase, that story, that piece of wisdom, is, in effect, the opportunity that Breakfast of Champions has provided to a series of speakers during each of the last 25 years. Speakers include coaches, educators, business people, professionals and others. They are people who are already influential in one way or another, Hess will tell you.

“But the one-to-12 ratio between any of them and the group of fifth graders, and the impressions they can make on such young minds, gives them the potential to have more influence at breakfast that day than they may have at any podium they face all year.”

The boys are expected to keep their eyes on whoever is speaking during breakfast, whether it’s Hess, or a guest speaker, or another boy — as a sign of respect for who is talking and what they are saying. They wear ties to the breakfast meetings, carry business cards with them, and have notebooks so they can take notes on each speaker. (“Because, what if you heard something that could change your life forever, but you weren’t listening,” Hess tells the boys.)

People are impressed. The students at Kalamazoo College will compliment them as they enter. Brady Hoke told Hess he only had a few minutes for the group the first year, but when he saw the boys in their ties, he spoke to them for 40 minutes and then took them on the field at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

“Some kids never get to leave their little circle,” Hess said. “I want the boys to see that life can be so much greater than what you thought, to see the possibilities that life has.”

Hess, a Realtor, and his wife Jeanne Hess, the volleyball coach at Kalamazoo College, raised their boys in Kalamazoo. Sons Kevan and Andrew attended King-Westwood, where they participated in the Breakfast of Champions, and graduated from Kalamazoo Central.

Hess tells the boys in Breakfast of Champions that he believes they have potential. In the future, one of them might be his doctor or his lawyer or the teacher guiding his grandchildren. But, he expects them to demonstrate the skills needed to be a champion: commitment, kindness, consideration, proper behavior. It’s their choice.

“When I coached, there was a saying, ‘Limited expectations, limited results,’” Hess said. He hopes the boys will remember that they always have a choice about how they behave. “Never give up that power.”

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