ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- Driving around the neighborhood that borders the southwest shore of the Rock Island Arsenal, Staff Sgt. Elvon Dixon knowingly gazes out the window.

"Here, you can?'t be soft" said Dixon. "You can't be vulnerable. You have to be real."

Dixon, a contract specialist at Army Contracting Command-Rock Island, knows what it is like growing up in rough neighborhoods, having been raised in urban Detroit. He has seen his share of struggle and knows first-hand how youth react to living in deprived neighborhoods.

He also knows how to overcome the obstacles, and shares his lessons learned with young people.

In September 2013, Dixon gave a speech at Thurgood Marshall Learning Center, an alternative school for the Rock Island-Milan School District, located three miles from the arsenal. During his speech, he encouraged the school?'s middle and high school students to find a positive path and follow it through.

The speech was well-received by students and staff. Working with the school's administration, Dixon created a mentoring program. The program, which officially launched in November, partners 15 Rock Island Arsenal Soldiers with students at the school.

"This is an alternative school, so many people gave up on these young men and women, kicked them out of the school system and they are pretty much forgotten about," said Dixon. "I know how it feels when people kick you to the side and write you off. I wanted to let them know if I can do it, they can do it. I want to encourage them that, despite their situation, they can overcome."

Dixon said this mentoring effort means so much to him because Rock Island is an area that resembles his hometown.

"Right now I'm not at home in Detroit, so I can't participate in helping rebuild my community, but I can do it here," said Dixon. "Rock Island is facing some difficulties of its own, so I feel very connected and want to help."

Phillip Ambrose, principal, Thurgood Marshall Learning Center, said the mentors are helping to improve the youths' self-esteem, self-confidence and their ability to compete in society. Ambrose said the mentorship program focuses on five quality-of-life assets that help accomplish these goals: other adult relationships, creative activities, achievement motivation, sense of purpose, and positive views of personal futures.

"The program has been an incredibly positive experience for our students, their families, and our school," said Ambrose. "This is only possible because of the energy and commitment of our Soldier volunteers. This is an example of a community partnership that is both powerful and of real value."
Mentoring is done voluntarily and takes place after duty and school hours. Activities range from laser tag, bowling and movies to simple dinners.

"A lot of these kids have never left Rock Island," said Dixon. "They've never been to a Chili's restaurant or even a Steak 'n Shake. We're getting them out of their environment and exposing hem to different things and giving them that one-on-one time that they don't get with their family."
Dixon's own protégée, seventh grader Donovan Cartwright, said he enjoys all of the activities they do together, and is learning simple ways to make his life more advantageous.

"He's taught me to keep my manners," Cartwright said. "I need to say 'yes, ma'am' and stuff like that."

Cartwright said he does have an interest in going into the Army someday. He said Dixon took him to Rock Island High School a few weeks back and was able to learn about and gain an interest in participating in the JROTC program when he gets to high school.

Dixon said the Soldiers involved in the program are proud to participate and pleased with the way it is operating.

There are 15 Soldiers from the arsenal volunteering in the mentor program. Soldiers from ACC-RI, the Community-Based Warrior Transition Unit, Army Sustainment Command and First Army are participating.

Currently, ACC-RI's mentors include: Majors Dwayne Haigler and Marian Feist; Master Sgt. Samantha Weatherspoon; and Staff Sergeants Scott D. Glenn, Tom Green, Martinson Yeboah, Marie Sandersgulas, and Veronica Miller.

Dixon said he wouldn't have been able to create this program without the support of Master Sgt. Sol Nevarezberrios, ACC-RI's senior enlisted advisor, and Weatherspoon, senior contracting NCO. He said they helped push the program by allowing him to meet with leaders of the other organizations, and by promoting the program.

"My leadership is so passionate about what is going on. The program would not be in place without their help," said Dixon. "When you see your leadership and peers believing and supporting you, it wasn't hard at all."

When Nevarezberrios began her assignment as the senior enlisted advisor at ACC-RI last year, she incorporated a requirement that each NCO lead some type of community effort as part of their rating.

Nevarezberrios said she is particularly impressed with the efforts that Dixon has put forth in creating the mentorship program.

"He comes from a rough environment, but he has elevated himself in spite of the adversity he has encountered," said Nevarezberrios. "He truly has a passion and desire to give back."

Dixon, who has been in the Army for more than 11 years, was a truck driver before being reclassified to contracting in March 2012. In addition to leading the mentor program, he is also handling a heavy workload, including several multi-million dollar contracts and serving as a past performance evaluator on two source selections.

Outside of work, he is raising a young family, pursuing a sports management master's degree and volunteering as a coach for the Rock Island boxing team.

Dixon said that he chose the sports management field because he likes dealing with young men and women.

"I like being able to encourage and motivate them," said Dixon. "Hopefully one day I'll be in a position to organize programs as a park and recreation director or a recreation center director. I'm always trying to learn and grow, not just in contracting but in life. I'm always challenging myself to be better."

Dixon knows that one day he will be reassigned out of the Quad Cities area, but said he hopes that the program lives on and continues to have an impact on not just the mentors and their protégées. He's hoping it encourages a new generation to improve their community, open their hearts and allow themselves to embrace vulnerability without fear.