In his blue denim pants, red T-shirt, and baseball cap pulled down over the ears and fringe of his gray hair, 5-foot-tall Byron Meek looks like one of the fifth-graders he’s talking to. It’s been decades since Meek, 96, has learned lessons in school, but for the last six years he’s been trying to teach a few to 10-year-olds in the north Oregon coastal town of Seaside (pop. 5,900).
Inspired by a newspaper article that said 10 is a pivotal age when youngsters decide whether to use drugs and alcohol or stay clean, Meek developed “The Program”—a pledge-driven plan requiring fifth-graders to stay off illegal substances and out of gangs and encouraging them to participate in youth organizations, sports, community service, family responsibilities, and other activities. They receive praise and points in return for their good citizenship. Points can then be cashed in for raffle prizes, which include bicycles, scooters, and electronic gadgets. At the end of the term, there’s a pizza party at the local arcade. Even the games are free.
Meek initially took his idea to the Seaside Chamber of Commerce, which adopted The Program and helped him establish it at the elementary school. The retired Fuller Brush salesman then went to chamber members and local businesses for money and support. “He’s a hard man to turn down,” says Marcy Swanson, events coordinator for the Seaside Chamber of Commerce. “When you see his little smile, you can’t say no to that guy.”
A team of volunteers helps with fund raising, coordination, monitoring student progress, and planning the parties. Meek and other volunteers continually search for ways to reach more kids. They hope to expand The Program into more schools, offer a scholarship, and raise enough money to support other youth-related activities.
Meek’s payoff is his contact with the students. Each Thursday during the school year, Meek settles onto one of the hard cafeteria benches during the lunch break.
“I sit sort of over by myself, and they sit over and eat their food, and then they come on over, and we’ll just have a conversation,” Meek says. Within seconds, the generation gap disappears. “It’s just like I was 10 years old. I just sit down and talk their language.”
The students say Meek listens and notices things, such as when they aren’t wearing their red Program T-shirt. He pays attention. So do the students. Many can recite from memory The Program motto that urges them to stay out of gangs and not use tobacco, drugs, and alcohol. They explain why drugs are bad, state that 18 is the legal age to smoke, and relate the effects of alcohol on the body—lessons they say they learned from The Program.
No statistics to define the impact of Meek’s efforts or the success of The Program are available. But over the years, Meek has encouraged more than 400 children to stay out of trouble and be contributing members of their community. Parents and volunteers say his message is one that some children would never hear at home. There is simply no way to estimate the positive influence Meek has had as a gentle, grandfather figure who cares about kids.
Many former participants in The Program approach Meek whenever they see him in public. They may give him a thumbs-up sign or stop to visit. Others drop him a note, such as the girl who wrote that she was glad to be in The Program because it helped her brother get off drugs.
Those are the statistics that matter to Meek.
“You’ve got to give the kids action if you want their attention,” he says. “I can’t tell you that all are 100 percent pure. I can’t, because I don’t believe it. But I do believe we can save a few of them, even if we can’t save them all.”