Building Men teaches students what manhood can really mean


When Joe Horan went through a divorce he came to a startling personal realization. He had been chasing a definition of manhood that was prized by society but that felt superficial and misguided.

His life, he says, lacked substance and depth. Chasing money, women, and sports held outsize significance. He wanted to “find healing from the unhealthy messages I believed about masculinity.”

Why We Wrote This

Joe Horan felt that society’s definition of masculinity was leading him down the wrong path. So he built a positive vision of manhood not just for himself, but also for the teenagers he mentors.

A physical education teacher at the time, Mr. Horan saw young boys around him embarking on a similar path and sought to offer a broader, more positive idea of manhood.

Through fellowship with male peers and mentors, his Building Men mentorship program has helped more than a thousand students gain perspective, work to restore self-worth, and learn to calm emotions. Kids participate in community service and mentor-led talks to help students navigate the stresses of adolescence.

A basketball component offers an accessible entry point for many students, but the program’s secret is how it dives into off-the-court issues through reinforced discussions on character.

“They sign up because they want to play basketball,” Mr. Horan says. “By the end of the year, they can better define their journey and a vision of their masculinity.” 

On a recent Tuesday, an after-school session for sixth- through eighth-grade boys starts in a second-floor cafeteria. Today’s lesson: attentive listening.

Samuel Colabufo, whom the young men call “Captain C,” asks the nine students to recite the Building Men creed. A few rattle it off with confidence, but many have just begun the program, an initiative of more than 15 years that has guided more than a thousand boys in the Syracuse City School District through a combination of mentorship, character building, and sports. 

Eighth grader De’Kota White, who has been involved for two weeks, does not yet have the 16-line creed memorized. He learned about the program during an opening-year assembly where Building Men’s founder, Joe Horan, spoke. De’Kota wanted to join because it sounded fun.

Why We Wrote This

Joe Horan felt that society’s definition of masculinity was leading him down the wrong path. So he built a positive vision of manhood not just for himself, but also for the teenagers he mentors.

“They do a lot and you get a chance to plays games at school,” he says. He looks forward to field trips, and by the end of the school year, attending the Rite of Passage – a culminating activity to prepare middle schoolers for their transition to high school.

Mr. Horan, who’s worked in the district for 30 years, says in an interview that the various elements of Building Men may seem small from the outside, “but aren’t small to the individuals involved.”

MICHAEL GREENLAR/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

With Building Men, Joe Horan has guided more than a thousand boys in the Syracuse City School District through a combination of mentorship, character building, and sports.

A personal journey

Looking back, Mr. Horan says his program evolved from a low point in his life. In 2004 as he went through a divorce, he realized he was chasing society’s definition of manhood. His life, he says, lacked substance and depth. “A desire became planted in my heart … to find healing from the unhealthy messages I believed about masculinity,” he says. 



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