Hearts and Minds: Program aims to encourage young, black boys to work hard and become doctors

Founder: 'There's so much I could do'
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-28 08:24:07-04

CINCINNATI -- Barbara Coakley is raising a teenager again.

This time it's her great grandson, William, and she's had him since he was tiny. William's mom had addiction problems. And as much as she wanted to raise her baby boy herself, she just couldn't. So Coakley stepped in to do it.

At nearly 78 years old, Coakley is the first to admit parenting is a lot different now than it was when she was raising her own four daughters decades ago. And William, who is 14 now, has been particularly challenging at times.

That's why Coakley was so happy to hear about Hearts and Minds. It's a program started by a local teacher to encourage young, black boys like William to stay in school, study and work to become doctors.

"It has helped him to maintain some persistence," Coakley said of the program. "He's gotten into some trouble. But he's also hearing all these voices around him and people around him trying to cheer him on. I know what he's been exposed to has definitely been beneficial to him."

At a time when detention halls and juvenile justice facilities have far too many black boys and men who got off course, the teacher behind Hearts and Minds felt himself called to do something about it.

Gary Favors

"It really is a program that addresses the needs of our black boys -- mentally, spiritually, physically, everything really -- to get our boys ready for college and the expectations of medical schools if they decide to go down that route," said Gary Favors, a special education teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools who started the program in 2012.

Favors has refined the program and has made changes as the boys involved in it have changed and grown. And he has the support of a number of local doctors and other men of influence who believe in his mission -- including Dr. Kevin Cochran, a cardiologist with Mercy Health, and H. James Williams, the president of Mount St. Joseph University.

'There's so much I could do'

Favors started the program after finishing a yearlong assignment at the Hamilton County Justice Center. A lawsuit prompted Cincinnati Public Schools and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office to ask Favors to teach juveniles who were locked up for serious crimes, he said.

Favors was reluctant about the assignment, he said, because he thought to himself, "What could I do?"

"But once I got in there and started working, I thought to myself, 'There's so much I could do,'" he said. "For some of those kids, it was way too late."

That inspired him to start Hearts and Minds as a way to reach boys much, much earlier.

"The main factor that will send a young, black male going off the deep end is if they feel disenfranchised with education," Favors said. "If they don't feel that this system is for them, they'll drop out, they'll end up hanging on the corner, selling whatever. And the cycle continues."

Hearts and Minds began as a mentoring program -- with Xavier University students paired up with boys as young as fourth or fifth grade.

But Favors decided the program could be more impactful if he teamed up with local, black doctors and encouraged the boys in Hearts and Minds to pursue medical careers of their own.

Cochran, a cardiologist at The Heart Institute in Fairfield, has been involved with the program since pretty much the beginning.

Dr. Kevin Cochran

Cochran has taken the boys in the program to the hospital where he works and has talked to them about the equipment he uses in addition to pointing out that there are people who design and maintain those machines, too.

"The focus has been science and technology," he said. "Why it's important to learn your math and sciences because it actually does make a difference and gets put to good use."

And while Cochran grew up with both parents in his home and in his life, he said he understands how difficult it can be for boys like those in Hearts and Minds to grow up without both moms and dads around and involved.

"My parents are no longer alive. But I remember those things that they taught me, and I can't imagine not having that. And a lot of these kids, they don't have it," he said. "If there's a way to interact and try to help in some way that's going to potentially help them, I'm for it."

Favors requires parents and guardians to be involved with the program, too, because he believes boys need support from all sides to be successful.

After all, that's how Favors made it, he said.

Beating the odds

Favors grew up in Over-the-Rhine in the 1970s. Most of his friends ended up in jail, but he attended Carson Newman College, joined the ROTC and served in the U.S. Army.

After serving during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Favors returned to Cincinnati to complete his teaching degree and get two master's degrees.

The way Favors sees it, he beat the odds. And he credits many people for helping him: his mother; a member of his church who introduced him to Carson Newman College and navigate the college application process; and the Army, for reinforcing the discipline of his youth.

He's been teaching special education for Cincinnati Public Schools for the past 20 years.

Through Hearts and Minds, Favors aims to give back in a whole new way.

"It breaks your heart to see the devastation within the black community," he said. "I'm trying to build on some structures that are already in place and not reinvent the wheel. How can I collaborate with some other organizations that are doing great things? How can we put our hands together and work smarter?"

Among those organizations is Mount St. Joseph University.

H. James Williams

Williams, who became president of the university earlier this year, met with Favors recently and came away from the meeting excited about how Mount St. Joseph can help.

"The very essence of the program -- helping them to see something other than the streets and other distractions -- I think that can make a world of difference," Williams said.

Williams said he understands and appreciates the mission of trying to encourage the boys in the program to become doctors. But he wants to expose them to other careers in the medical field, too -- careers that Mount St. Joseph University prepares its students to pursue.

The importance of working together

The university plans to invite the Hearts and Minds students and families onto campus and teach them more about what those programs have to offer, Williams said.

And while the students will see black men in important roles at the university, they also will see how those men work as part of diverse teams to be successful.

"It's important to communicate that we're not islands unto ourselves," Williams said. "The world is more and more diverse and more and more pluralistic every day. We believe in diversity here. We believe in inclusion and equity. And I think we have some valuable lessons to share."

Dr. Kevin Cochran works with students in Hearts and Minds.

For her part, Coakley is looking forward to her great grandson being part of Hearts and Minds for another year.

William has been in the program since about fifth grade, she said, and it feels more important to his future with every passing year.

"Whatever level the kids are -- even if you don't maybe have the IQ level to be a doctor -- you still have a level. And whatever your level is, this program helps you move towards whatever your capacity is," she said.

Through Hearts and Minds, William and the other boys have been exposed to people and professions they would never have known about otherwise, Coakley said.

"They see all different professions, all different colors, and they see these people have come through struggles just like them," she said. "It has enough for you to see where you can go if you want to go there and if you try."

Hearts and Minds is accepting applications for its program through Sept. 15. For more information about the program and how to apply, click here.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.