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Inside Raymond Nelson’s closet at Memminger Elementary School in Charleston, S.C., you’ll not only find the usual pencils, papers and art supplies, but something else that has become equally important to his male students’ education: a rotating collection of suits, vests and neckties.
As co-founder of “Boys with a Purpose” with another teacher, Kenneth Joyner, Nelson, 31, subscribes to the mantra of “look good, feel good, do good.” For 70 boys in the first-to-fifth grades, that philosophy is driven home every Wednesday when they gather to learn everything from the proper way to address adults (“Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir”) to door-opening etiquette and which fork to use in a restaurant.
“First and foremost, we want them to go through life with the lesson that they have to have respect for themselves in order to have respect for others,” Nelson, a student support specialist at Memminger who works with at-risk children, tells PEOPLE. “There’s such a great need for that lesson in the world right now. So why not start where it counts, in our own community?”
Nelson, who grew up in Charleston and was put into several programs as a boy by his parents to learn social etiquette skills, came up with the idea for Boys with a Purpose last December with Joyner, 47, a fourth-grade teacher at the school.
“We grew up knowing what to expect – don’t mix brown belts and black shoes, for example,” says Joyner. “We were enlightened on how to be young men. But so many boys today simply don’t have that. Maybe they’re growing up without a dad to teach things like that, or maybe it just isn’t a priority. We started this club because we wanted to show these kids that they have the power to do more in their lives.”
Once a week, all of the boys in the club put on dress shirts, jackets and ties and gather in the school cafeteria for lessons about how to shake hands, make eye contact and carry on a polite social conversation. Nelson keeps a donated stash of “Sunday best” attire on hand for boys who don’t have their own.
“When they look good, they act like gentlemen,” Nelson tells PEOPLE. “You don’t usually see somebody picking a fight when they’re in a tuxedo now, do you?”
The boys also take field trips to local restaurants to try out their new table manners.
“We don’t want our girls to feel left out, so we had the boys ask a girl to come to dinner, and we’ll continue to do that,” Joyner tells PEOPLE. “But we live in a society with a lot of broken men. We want to give these boys the hope and the structure that they so desperately need. That’s what is going to turn the tide if we want to build strong men.”
Latoya Fludd, whose sons, Omari, 11, and Lamar, 8, are in the club, says that the lessons they’ve learned from Nelson and Joyner have touched every aspect of their lives.
“Their grades have improved and they now race to the car to open the door for their little sister,” the single mom, 29, tells PEOPLE. “My boys have also gained confidence in themselves. I’m so grateful for this program. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Joyner are doing a wonderful job inspiring my boys and the others to become great men.”
“I’m always excited for Wednesdays every week,” adds Omari. “People smile at us when we’re all dressed up and that’s fun.”
Although neither of the club leaders have boys of their own (Nelson has one daughter), both say they often feel as though they have 70 sons.
“On Wednesdays, when I see these boys come to school excited to learn in their jackets and ties, I’m so proud of them,” Joyner says. “There’s nothing these boys can’t dream and learn. To be a part of that is a privilege and an honor.”