It certainly isn’t Tyrone “T-Man” Raybon’s physical build that demands respect from the underprivileged youth enrolled in the Moving Ahead after-school program at the Columbia Housing Authority’s J.W. “Blind” Boone Center. His firm discipline, strict eye and intimidating speech exaggerate his 5-foot 7-inch, 152-pound frame.
Who’s to say what it is that draws children to “T-Man”? Maybe it’s his big heart. Perhaps it’s his confident gait. Whatever the inspiration, 20 to 25 arrive at the center every Monday through Thursday seeking a dose of his devotion.
“He disciplines some ‘tough love’ around here,” says Valeri Van Dyke, Moving Ahead coordinator and MU student. “A lot of the kids lack a strong male role model in their life. If you’re tough on them, they’ll love you even more.”
T-Man’s many roles
What does the “T” in “T-Man” stand for? Raybon claims it’s just a childhood nickname. Tyrone. Terrible. Terrific. Tough love. The “T” can stand for any of them.
Raybon’s affinity for the letter “T” is evident at home, where he is the father of four: Taleisha, 18; Tania, 16; Tyra, 14; and Tranecie, 12.
His longtime friend and mentor, Mid-Missouri High Steppers drillmaster Rolando Barry, says Raybon’s relationship with his children helps him connect with the children at the housing authority.
“Four girls all around the same age keep him up on the latest lingo, dance, music, etc.,” Barry says.
When he’s not occupied by his daughters’ braids and boy talk, Raybon relishes the role of mentor, tutor, chef and assistant drillmaster at the center. He sees himself as a “personal development coach.”
“I’m a powerful man down here because I show I care,” Raybon says. “Talk is just talk. These kids want to see.”
Each afternoon Raybon scurries in and out of a storage closet to set up collapsible tables and chairs in the center’s tutoring room. Once he’s satisfied with their placement, he hustles to the kitchen to prepare the day’s snack.
While tutors give individual attention to Moving Ahead students, Raybon single-handedly whips up a feast. On some days, the tangy aroma of barbecue beef fills the multipurpose room, teasing the taste buds of hungry students hard at work and signaling the arrival of 5:30 p.m. snack time. On other days, the meal might be fish sticks or bagel bites. Today, it’s tuna noodle casserole.
Changing the rhythm of a community
As he throws together the necessary ingredients, Raybon describes his work with the Mid-Missouri High Steppers. Fall commutes down Providence Road on Monday and Thursday afternoons wouldn’t be the same without the pops and rolls of the drum cadence that fade in and out as one passes the Blind Boone Center. The drill team marches under Raybon’s direction and keeps central Columbia alive with the rhythms of stomping children and thumping bass drums on autumn evenings.
“This is my life,” Raybon, 38, says with a grin while measuring two cups of water for his casserole. “Fifty to 60 hours per week. This is my passion, my dream. There ain’t nothing like working with kids. It’s my calling.”
Raybon has a strong foundation for working at the center. When he moved to Columbia’s public housing from an inner city St. Louis neighborhood at 13, he also made the transition into the peer pressures of high school. He felt he had to prove himself to his peers and joined the “C-boys,” a group he defines as a positive group, not a gang.
“It was a group of big fellows. I was the littlest one, but I was the man who kept the peace,” Raybon says, shaking his head. He slides the casserole into the oven, double-checks its cooking temperature and shuffles across the floor to lean against the counter. He smiles.
“When I moved here, I had a young, urban St. Louis mentality,” he says. “Problems were worse in my neighborhood. I was brought here to change my ways.”
Raybon explains that he did more than change his ways; he set out to change a community.
Twenty-five years ago, he witnessed the birth of a powerful program designed to “give youth a place to go at a young, tender age.” He joined the Mid-Missouri High Steppers in its first year.
“T-Man used to dance in the Steppers. He was one of four young men that we called the master showmen,” Barry says. “They had staffs and entertained the ladies and did a hell of a job. Girls would flock around them. They were hot.”
Add lady’s man to Raybon’s impressive list of qualifications.
High steps to big dreams
When he graduated from Hickman High School in 1984, Raybon found work in a local factory but remained a volunteer assistant to Barry.
“Rolando is from the same St. Louis neighborhood as my grandma,” Raybon says. “He started college here a few months before I moved here. We were both outsiders trying to make our mark in the community. We clicked. I learn from him, and he learns from me.”
The men are working together to expand the High Steppers program to other areas of Columbia. This year, 110 new students from Blue Ridge Elementary will learn to recite the High Steppers’ creed, bringing the total number of youth involved in the drill team to nearly 250.
“Have you ever seen ‘Drumline’? That’s our favorite movie around here,” Raybon says. “Someday we’d like to make a movie like that so the whole world can see what is happening here. We could be a role model for a lot of communities. We want to write Oprah. We want to take the place of gym class.”
To some, Raybon might seem like a dreamer. But there is strength in numbers, and Raybon is not alone. Everyday, his students dream just as big. In fact, one recently composed a letter to the postmaster general with a special request. She asked that Raybon and Barry be printed on a stamp because, in her own writing: “They are doing something good for kids so they arn’t getting sent to jail, JJC. They are two good people and they have a center for kids who need more help with thery home work.”
Raybon only modestly accepts such praise. He quickly turns the conversation back to the children he serves.
“Maybe next year, we can help our kids out,” he says. “We could take them on field trips and buy them new uniforms so they feel good about stepping out. If I just make someone happy everyday, I can go home and sleep at night.”