Mentoring young men

The Outlet has a big new home and ideas to fill it

click to enlarge Mentoring young men
Photo courtesy of The Outlet
Playing basketball outside the previous building.

"Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it." Habbakuk 2:2 NRSV

"You have to have faith," says Michael Phelon of Springfield. This is a perpetual mantra for Phelon, who founded The Outlet in 2005. It is a faith-based nonprofit organization that mentors young males, ages 8 to 22 from single-parent homes, to help them make responsible life decisions and realize their dreams (see "Boys will be men," p. 12). While mentoring is at the heart of The Outlet, it also has a broader community impact. The Outlet's new campus is the former St. Joseph's Home at 3306 S. Sixth Street in Springfield. 

The Outlet purchased the property in April from the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception, based in Peoria. When the sisters announced the closing of St. Joseph's Home in October 2021, the ministry had provided "sheltering and comfort of aged people" for 118 years. The same dedication and compassion the sisters gave to end-of-life care have now been transferred to The Outlet, which provides loving care at the beginning of young boys' lives. The Sisters of St. Francis were inspired by Michael Phelon and the mission of The Outlet. Instead of putting the property up for sale at fair market value, they invited Phelon to make an offer. The Outlet is now honoring the community heritage of the property while making investments intended to impact the future of youth forever.

"This is my passion. This is my heartbeat," says Phelon. His wife, Rikeesha, is well aware of that. She knew when she married Michael, she was also making a life commitment to The Outlet. It was a package deal.

With this acquisition, The Outlet is expanding from 3,500 square feet to a 14-acre property with 80,000 square feet of building space. "It's more than a building, it's what's happening in it," says Rikeesha. Phelon describes this as The Outlet's "forever home...a center for youth development for central Illinois where boys are surrounded with love." The Outlet outgrew its space and was looking for a new facility, but other prospects fell through. "There's 80,000 square feet of opportunities," says Phelon. "Michael has enough vision to fill it," proclaims Rikeesha.

Plans to renovate 22,000 square feet

The Outlet presented visualizations for renovating the first 22,000 square feet at an "Ignite" gathering on Oct. 22, intended to "ignite a passion for the future of The Outlet." This space is the former Holy Family Wing. It is the newest part of the facility and has the most flexibility for reconfiguring walls and adapting spaces.

The renovated space will include separate rooms for counseling, tutoring, recreation, computer lab, homework areas, lounges, group programs, multipurpose uses and a wide diversity of programming. The vast outdoor areas provide welcome opportunities for gardening, outdoor sports and recreational activities. This is a stark contrast to The Outlet's 2525 S. 12th Street location, which functions like a one-room schoolhouse. There will also be spaces designed for moms and their younger children to hang out while the boys are engaged in activities. Adult educational programs, such as financial literacy, are also envisioned.

click to enlarge Mentoring young men
Photo by Evan Brown.
St. Joseph's Home served aged people for 118 years. Now it will serve youth.

David Parker, an architect with Melotte, Morse, Leonatti, Parker, Ltd., in Springfield, led the architectural planning for the new space. Parker first met Phelon when he spoke at Parker's Sunrise Rotary Club. The Outlet's mission struck a chord with Parker, and that led him to get his church engaged with The Outlet. While sequestered at home during the pandemic, Parker helped with online tutoring and mentoring and now is a one-on-one mentor to a young boy. Given his dedication as a volunteer, Parker was in an ideal situation to apply his professional skills as an architect to help The Outlet's leadership team envision and plan for the new space. "Young people are the future, and if they see no future for themselves, that future is dimmer for all of us," says Parker. "I believe God sees possibility in every human being; I can do no less. If I can help even one boy to believe in himself and to become a successful man with strong values and a willingness to contribute to his community, or even just to make positive decisions when faced with all possible poor ones in our culture, then all the time invested and the money the new facility will cost is worth it."

click to enlarge Mentoring young men
Photo courtesy of David Parker
Architects' concepts of the multifitness room in the renovated space.

The Outlet purchased the property for cash and currently remains a debt-free organization. Grants and donations from local businesses, foundations, individuals and organizations provide the bulk of The Outlet's finances. Fundraising is underway to realize the vision for the new property. The Outlet raised $2.3 million in pledges and donations towards its $3.8 million goal during the last eight months, the silent phase of the fundraising campaign. The recent "Ignite" event kicked off the public phase of the campaign. Construction is expected to take one year.

Mary Beth Stephens is Campaign Committee chair. She and her husband, Harvey, raised two boys, and she coaches high school boys in swimming. She also provides college admissions counseling for high school students, which prompted her to pursue getting involved with The Outlet. However, her first task was teaching boys to swim. Over the past five years, she has seen firsthand The Outlet's impact on young males. "I've never known anyone who believes in his mission as ardently as Michael does," says Stephens. She has witnessed how Phelon's deep belief in God guides him and gives him undying faith. Her task is to introduce Phelon to people he may not know. According to Stephens, all it takes is for people to meet Michael and be inspired by his vision, energy and enthusiasm.

Opportunities for new business/community partnerships

"We are inviting the community to reimagine a different type of home for youth development – one that complements other providers and services but offers something unique, a safe passage from boyhood to manhood," says Rikeesha. "The new space allows us to realize that vision while also creating opportunities for new partnerships and collaborations to serve the entire city and beyond."

click to enlarge Mentoring young men
Photo courtesy of Michael Phelon
Michael and Rikeesha Phelon with their children, Kingston and Mary

After the first phase of development, the remainder of the building affords numerous possibilities. There is a chapel, residential rooms, commercial kitchen, commercial laundry, clinical spaces, office spaces, gardens, meeting rooms, courtyards and much more. The entire property is in excellent condition and well-maintained. The Sisters of St. Francis were extremely accommodating to ensure a smooth transition and turnkey operation. The Outlet is in the early stages of exploring future uses for the remainder of the property and potential collaborations. Visionary ideas from the community are welcome. As Phelon says, "there's 80,000 square feet of opportunities." Contact Michael Phelon at [email protected].

Karen Ackerman Witter has known Michael and Rikeesha Phelon for many years and deeply admires their passion and commitment to improving the lives of young boys and the entire community.

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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