South Charlotte

Heroes are made to lead

It took several minutes of maneuvering to get the flat bike tire inflated and back in working order, but after completing the task, Owen Burkard was inspired.

“Can we try it all by ourselves?” asked the 11-year-old, as fellow group member Michael Roche, also 11, agreed: “It's kind of easy!”

On the surface the scene looked like a lesson in being handy, but the new Hero's Pursuit summer camp at South Mecklenburg High School is about much more than that.

Call it gentleman's training. By taking boys in grades 5-8 through lessons on fixing bike tires, giving meaningful handshakes and displaying manners in their phone, texting and e-mail habits, organizers hope the youngsters learn how to grow into leaders and independent thinkers.

Hero's Pursuit is the all-boys counterpart to the popular Athena's Path, the girl empowerment program held in several Charlotte-area schools last year.

Michelle Icard, 35, a local mom with an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, created the girls program based on her own middle school experiences and after studying girls' self-esteem. The program took off at 10 sites.

After comments from parents and school leaders that boys need a course, too, she wrote the boys' version. To lead it, she teamed with Jeremy Spielman, 29, principal of Charlotte Secondary School and parent of an infant daughter.

Spielman and Icard say the emphasis on tasks in the Hero's camp shouldn't imply that girls couldn't also benefit from changing tires, say, or learning etiquette tips on crafting e-mails. But boys learn differently, they said – more through doing things, not so much through group talks that are the hallmark of Athena's Path.

Organizers also hope the program becomes known as a remedy of sorts to all the time many boys spend with online gaming, said Amanda Roncevich, who runs both the boys' and girls' programs with Icard. Hero's could help provide boys with the character and social education they don't get through gaming.

Organizers hope the Hero's program spreads to schools in the fall.

Some bizarre lessons were designed for the week, including a “Survivor”-like food challenge. Boys, divided in teams, had to pick a bag containing a “mystery food item” to eat. The first team to eat all of its mystery items would win. (Camp leaders expected some hesitation, especially because one of the mystery items planned was beef puree.)

The point of this and all the lessons is discussed during “hangout time,” when the boys review what they've learned. In the food challenge case, it's teamwork, since other boys could step forward to eat something a teammate didn't want.

For tire changing, the main message is being willing to help when you have the knowledge to do so, Spielman told the boys: “You could be the guy who stops by and saves the day.”

No wonder one of the campers displayed his hands, smeared with bike grease, like a badge of honor.

“Manly hands,” he said.