Odis Bellinger: Works to build better young men

Michael H. HodgesThe Detroit News

Odis Bellinger is in the dream business.

For 26 years, he’s spent virtually all his free time mentoring adolescent boys in Detroit with his program, Building Better Men.

His goal is to get kids, many of whom don’t have fathers active in their lives, to value themselves and visualize their hopes and ambitions.

“He always said, ‘Write it down. Put it on your refrigerator,’ ” said Walter Waters, 33, in security at Detroit Community High School who was in the program in elementary school.

“As a kid growing up in the inner city,” Waters added, “Odis helped me make the right decisions, not the wrong ones.”

Bellinger, 50, is the recipient of the Angelo Henderson Community Commitment Award.

Despite having a stepfather he came to love and admire, Bellinger never knew his biological father, a fact that caused the young man much grief.

Building Better Men — now a program division of Detroit’s Matrix Human Services, where Bellinger is an assistant director — was born out of an adolescent’s despair.

“At 12,” Bellinger said, “I knew if I was able to do something positive in my life, I’d start something for young men who felt like me.”

With a master’s degree in counseling from Wayne State, Bellinger created a volunteer after-school program that focused on literacy, conflict resolution, and — doubtless the big draw for boys — basketball.

“The game,” explained Bellinger, “teaches teamwork, and how to win and lose.”

Youngsters are encouraged to brainstorm and articulate a career goal, after which Bellinger matches them with positive role models in that field.

“They need to see what they want to become,” he said.

But Bellinger’s not interested in fantasy careers.

“We do not want ‘athlete’ or ‘rapper,’ ” he said. “If you’re blessed to achieve those things, great — but you need to have a backup plan.”

Bellinger’s work has won notice. Last year he traveled to Washington to accept the President’s Volunteer Service Award at the White House.

Kelvin Wheeler Jr., who now works in special education, called Bellinger “positive and consistent,” and recalled life lessons profound and small.

“Mr. Bellinger did things like teaching us how to tie ties,” he said, adding with a laugh, “and he always made sure the boys wore belts so their pants didn’t sag.”

For those who know him best, Bellinger — a product of Detroit’s Benedictine High School — was always bound for something good.

His mother, Yvonne Bellinger, recalled a child with unusual drive.

“Odis was ambitious,” she said, “and always looked out for other people. So I thought he would go a long ways.”

Odis Bellinger

Age: 50

Occupation: Assistant director, Matrix Human Services; founder, Building Better Men

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Fayetteville State University; master’s degree, Wayne State University

Family: Two daughters

Why honored: Recipient of the Angelo Henderson Community Commitment Award for helping young men craft their dreams and build better lives