- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Former University of Pittsburgh football coach Mike Gottfried stands alongside a young man, facing an auditorium filled with campers. His name is written in large, capital letters on the chalkboard behind him.

He tells the boy to turn his back to the lecture hall and points to his shirt. The shirt, adorned with the camp logo, reads, “Guiding Young Men to the Ultimate Victory.”

“What is the Ultimate Victory?” asks the coach, sporting a collared shirt, blue tie and khakis.

The kids raise their hands.

“Becoming men,” one says.

“Knowing God,” says another.

Others answer “success,” “being a better person” and “going to Heaven.”

Welcome to Team Focus.

The organization, founded in 2000 by Mr. Gottfried and his wife, Mickey, operates camps to mentor fatherless children between the ages of 10 and 18. This year’s summer leadership camp in Washington, which accepted 46 campers, was held July 19 to 22.

Working with the kids carries a personal meaning for Mr. Gottfried, who lost his father at age 11.

“I know how it is to lose a father and not have a man in the house,” he said. “I started losing hope and thought I was different.”

Headquartered in Mobile, Ala., Team Focus founded its D.C. chapter — one of 15 in the United States — in 2002. First held at Howard University, the summer camps have taken place at Catholic University for the last four years.

The camp, which costs families nothing, has been supported by federal grants, private donations and corporate sponsors, including from General Motors Acceptance Corp. and Safeway Inc..

Campers engage in an array of activities, including playing softball and basketball, learning how to tie a tie and attending lectures on life lessons.

Keith Howard, director of Team Focus‘ local chapter, said that the number of fatherless families in Washington points to a need for the program in the city.

“For me, it’s an investment,” he said. “I know if I put in the time, and I get some men, and they put in the time with me, were saving souls. … I want to break the cycle of fatherlessness.”

The National Kids Count program determined that in 2007, 53 percent of children in the District lived in a fatherless household.

While the camp consists primarily of kids from the D.C. area, youths from as far away as Richmond, Philadelphia and Florida attended this summer’s leadership camp.

Ryan Garofalo, a 16-year-old from Dustin, Fla., was a camper last year at Team Focus Mobile, Ala., chapter. The teenager, whose favorite part of the summer leadership camp are its class lectures, hopes to attend college and major in business or political science.

“I came back this year because I thought it was going to be a great experience,” he said. “When I come here, its like refreshing my mind and getting a brand-new start on things. You gain perspective when you come here.”

Camp highlights this year included a visit to the Secret Service training facility in Beltsville and a competition to conduct the most impressive mock job interview for a prize - a brand-new laptop.

Christopher Nazien, 15, a camper from Hampton, Va., who first joined Team Focus in 2005, appreciated the mock interviews.

“Even if I dont win,” he said, “it’s good to know what to do when I need a job or start my career.”

Etiquette and camp rules are emphasized. All kids tuck in their camp T-shirts and are reminded to sit up straight. Electronic gadgets are deposited into a box at the beginning of camp and returned at the end of the four-day experience.

Though the camp only lasts four days, Team Focus makes an effort to stay in contact with its youths.

While cell phones are not allowed at the camp, they are vital for keeping in touch with campers. Camp mentors continue to check on kids’ progress with texts and phone calls.

Campers reunite with Team Focus in December for a Christmas party, and there are outings in the fall, winter and spring that might include attending a concert or a sporting event.

Mr. Howard said the long-term commitment from Team Focus mentors is important.

“To me, it’s ‘hope’ in the four-day camp,” he said. “The ‘change’ is in the 361 other days of the year, when we go to games or I show up at a PTA meeting.”

Mr. Gottfried — who has written an autobiography titled “Coachs Challenge: Faith, Football and Filling the Father Gap” — also incorporates faith into the life lessons taught at Team Focus.

“His fingerprint, nobody else has got it,” he said, describing a camper in front of a lecture hall full of Team Focus members. “His fingerprints are unique. Mine are unique. Nobody has your fingerprints.”

“God made every one of us different,” Mr. Gottfried said. “And He gave us certain qualities. He gave us all gifts, different gifts. … Youre special. Everyone in here is special. And God has a destiny for all of you.”

Jeff Bishku-Aykul is a writer who attends McGill University in Montreal.

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