Carlos Honore finds opportunity amid pandemic to reinvent Fifth Ward Saints
Across the country, students are struggling to focus and retain information with online learning, and many feel they are learning less than past years. USA TODAY
This story is part of the Iowa City Press-Citizen's People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Carlos Honore, 42, is no stranger to hardship, but a historic year led him to shut down his nonprofit to serve at-risk kids, Fifth Ward Saints. But like entrepreneurs across the country, Honore took the opportunity to change up the formula for how he approached his work.
When he first moved to Iowa City from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1989, Honore said "the wrong crowd" brought him within swinging distance of juvenile detention, a low point that football pulled him back from.
"I was one strike away and sports became a turning point," he told the Press-Citizen recently. "Football had discipline and teamwork and comradery — the things you learn from being a part of something."
Honore played football and wrestled and even competed in track and soccer. On Iowa City West High's team, he helped secure the 1995 4A state football championship. While a professional football career never materialized, a mission did: He wanted to use the team structure he'd benefited from to help at-risk students.
At the time he was living in Houston, Texas' Fifth Ward — the so-called "Bloody Nickle" — was an area with a history of high rates of gun violence and high rates of child poverty. Bluesman Weldon "Juke Boy" Bonner wrote back in the 1960s that you'd be wise to stay off the Fifth Ward intersection of Lyons Avenue and Jensen Street:
And stay off Lyons Avenue street
And don't go down on Jensen nowhere
Because you're living on luck and a prayer.
"It was a place where a lot of kids were being exposed," Honore said, "to stuff they shouldn't be that early." His organization's goal became "to instill a sense of dignity and hope in each child."
He launched Fifth Ward Saints in 2009, organizing football for kids to play after school. But, after a decade, he said the team alone wasn't doing the work it needed to accomplish, so he enlisted the help of his wife, Tatum, who is a social worker, and expanded the program to include a more explicit focus on social and emotional supports, as well as athletic development.
Now, the program works to engage kids in music, chess, writing and more, too.
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In 2017, Honore's efforts were recognized when West High School, his alma mater, honored him with its Distinguished Alumni Award. Looking out into the audience, he said he was surprised to see how diverse the student body had become.
"I couldn't believe how colorful it had become — how different it was since I was there," he said. He also heard stories about students struggling with the same issues he had when he was young. It got him thinking.
"I thought the community would benefit from a program like ours," Honore said.
Through a now annual $10,000 grant, Honore began an Iowa City chapter of the Fifth Ward Saints with programming at five of the city's elementary schools: Mark Twain, Alexander, Lucas, Grant Wood and Kirkwood.
He said things were going well until the pandemic hit. With it no longer safe to congregate in groups, he said his program had to pivot. The Fifth Ward Saints shut down.
"We had a great thing going in the right direction, but when the pandemic hit," Honore said, "all of a sudden, we just couldn't operate on-site with kids. It left us in a position to see just what it was we were doing."
Renaming the project Community Student Support Solutions, Honore is switching gears to curriculum design. He said the group has been working to adapt what was learned from Fifth Ward Saints to create a program they can take to school districts.
The coming year will be an important one for the new organization, he said, as it exits the pandemic as a different company, meaning big changes, and, he hopes, big successes.
"Instead of us being hands-on and only impacting a few kids, my goal is to impact thousands of kids across the country."
About 'People to Watch'
The Iowa City Press-Citizen's "People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen in a collaboration between newsroom staff and the Press-Citizen's editorial board. Their stories will run in the Press-Citizen through the first part of January.
More in this series:
- Matt Degner was asked to be Iowa City's interim superintendent amid pandemic, civil unrest
- Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert has some ideas on how to improve elections in Iowa
- GuideLink Center director Abbey Ferenzi hopes to offer people in crisis 'another option'
- Raneem Hamad helped draft Iowa City's pledge to end systemic racism, hopes to push for change
- A surge in support in 2020 has Fred Newell dreaming bigger about the future of Dream City