Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Beaufort, clothes make the gentleman, and the lady

Approaching three hundred years ago, the sons and daughters of South Carolina's elite had private tutors and governesses to teach them etiquette, and English-made finery to make them presentable.

Today, at least in Beaufort County, students of ordinary South Carolinians have access to the same training and clothes, thanks to the nonprofit Peters Group Foundation and its Gentlemen's and Ladies Clubs.

From the Island Packet:

For a group of young gentlemen-in-training from Hilton Head Island High School, the choice was clear: their blazers must have gold buttons to make the sharply tailored jackets shine.

"It stands out more," junior Jamarcus Moradel said. "It makes it look better."

For many of the 17 teens, this blazer was their first.

They are members of the Gentlemen's Club, groups at middle and high schools across Beaufort County that focus on teaching young men leadership, respect and etiquette.

"We learn what to take care of as a man," said sophomore Shane Wright. "Like doing our schoolwork, how to treat a lady, and that we should take care of our families."

L.J. Bush, one of the club's leaders, said the goal is to teach the young men to be responsible and to be good citizens. The clubs follow a curriculum from The Peters Group, which founded the clubs in 1996.

I've heard of special-occasion programs that collect and redistribute used prom dresses and tuxedos to high school students, but this is a new one to me, and an admirable and worthwhile concept. It goes directly to the heart of one's self-esteem: Look good, feel good.

At Hilton Head High each Thursday, the club members wear a white button-down shirt and a tie to school.

Now, they'll add the blazers, which were fitted at Jos. A Bank on Hilton Head Island on Thursday. The blazers were donated by the Van Landingham Rotary Club.

"Everybody is going to be looking at us," sophomore Orlando White said with a wide smile.

Bush believes the club is making a difference in the students' lives.

The coat, he says, will help.

"A blazer completes the outfit; it makes everyone feel good," he said. "It will add that extra spice, and they'll be used to wearing it by the time they go out into the work force."

Moradel agreed the club has made a difference in his life -- tutors help him when he needs it and he's learning skills he knows he'll need in the future. A few weeks ago, the group learned dining etiquette at a restaurant. Moradel thought the lessons would help on dates while Wright said he now knows how to handle a business dinner.

The club has branches at eight other county schools:

Battery Creek and Whale Branch Early College high schools

Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head Island, Lady's Island, Robert Smalls and Whale Branch middle schools

There are also two Ladies Clubs, which follow a similar model, at Bluffton and Robert Smalls middle schools. On meeting days, members dress up -- usually in a black skirt or pants, white shirt and a pink scarf or tie.

But it's about more than manners.

There's also a community service component. Hilton Head High students have worked to maintain their school's track and stadium. Students at Robert Smalls have caroled at nursing homes. At Bluffton Middle, Ladies Club members have assisted in fundraisers and a coat drive.

Many club members struggle in school or have behavior issues, club sponsors said. This club helps address those concerns, they say.

Pamela Maddox, an assistant principal at Bluffton Middle, said teachers have told her the 25 girls involved in the club are behaving better and that their grades have started to climb. The girls have learned that someone will hold them accountable for their actions, Maddox said.

"I think it makes a difference," she said. "It's another opportunity that we stop in our busy schedules long enough to just connect with them in a different way."

David McIntyre, an assistant principal at Robert Smalls Middle who coordinates the two clubs, agreed the groups are changing student behavior.

"I see that the kids are more confident," he said. "We've started to see more self-discipline. Some students would get into trouble, and we've seen a decrease in that. Just overall, they have a positive outlook on their future."

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