St. Johns County officer a finalist in USA TODAY'S 2021 Humankind Awards

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On Friday morning at The Webster School in West Augustine, Mark James Jr. used a soccer ball to teach students about leadership.

One by one, he tossed the ball to several fifth-graders gathered in a classroom.

When a student caught the ball, they were asked to describe whether certain people, or certain types of people, were positive leaders and why.

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The group represents one of many volunteer youth mentoring efforts James leads in the community ― efforts that have earned him a spot among finalists for a national award.

James spoke with students about how their lives are going. He talked about bullying and its harmful, sometimes fatal, effects. He talked about the importance of spending time with the right kinds of friends. And he reminded students of the rewards that come from good behavior and the consequences that follow wrong choices.

Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James,  a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.
Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James, a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.

"Somebody in this school looks up to you guys," he said.

As lunch time neared, the students shared what they've learned during their time with James.

Some said they have learned how to stay calm in tense situations and avoid fights. One boy said he learned formal table etiquette and how to "tie a tie" at a "gentleman's boot camp" hosted by James.

Jerrell Jackson, 10, said James is teaching them "to become the leaders of tomorrow."

One of the 'Best of Humankind'

James is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards ― The St. Augustine Record is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK.

Founded this year, the event will "honor everyday people who have showcased the highest level of kindness, compassion and perseverance. Each Humankind award recognizes and celebrates an everyday person who is making a difference in their community," according to the USA TODAY Ventures Events team.

USA Today received more than 650 nominations across the country, and an advisory board selected about two dozen finalists ― 72,000 votes were cast to determine the winners in October. James is a finalist in the Viewer's Choice Award category.

Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James,  a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.
Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James, a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.

The winners will be announced during an awards show at 7 p.m. Thursday hosted by Jenna Bush Hager. People can watch the show at HumankindAwards.com, at Humankind YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok profiles; or on the USA TODAY channel available on most smart televisions and devices.

Winners will receive $1,000. The people who nominated them will receive $250. The Webster School Principal Bethany Groves-Smith and Community Partnership School Director Alexius Ferguson nominated James for the award. Ferguson and James are cousins.

Bringing life experiences into the classroom and onto the field

James was born and raised in West Augustine. He works as a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, and in his free time, he volunteers as a youth football coach and mentor in a variety of programs. He has four children, ages 18, 17, 15 and 14.

About eight years ago, he launched a mentoring program called Nu Nation of Men. The program teaches youth ― including students from The Webster School and Crookshank Elementary School ― a variety of life skills.

"We do anger management. We talk to them about mannerisms, education, social skills and recreation," he said.

James uses sports to help children learn the value of working with others and to learn how do deal with failure, he said.

"Suffering a defeat isn't easy, but it's essential to know that in life, you won't always win, but you can't quit," James said.

James said he had mentors who helped guide him during his childhood in West Augustine. Their influence, and the challenges he faced as a child, instilled a desire to mentor children, he said.

When he decided to seek a career in law enforcement, he could have left the county and worked for another agency, he said. But he decided to stay in St. Augustine.

Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James,  a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.
Mark James Jr. speaks with students in a classroom at The Webster School in West Augustine, where he volunteers, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. James, a corrections officer for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, is a finalist for USA TODAY'S inaugural Best of Humankind awards.

"I decided to stay in my hometown because I think it's better for me to allow kids to see me be successful here," he said. "A lot of people graduate and go to college and never come back. And a lot of our kids here don't see a lot of people who have been successful from St. Augustine because they don't return."

James said he shares his experiences with children, the good and the bad, so that they can learn from him.

"I consider myself a success story. I made it out. I've never been to jail before. … I have no felonies, [no] misdemeanors on my record. And I don't look down on people because they do, because everyone can change ― but I'm letting them know that don't let the environment that you're in or how people view your community stop you from anything that you want to do," he said.

While he focused on mentoring young boys, he also has girls in his groups. And he plans to tweak his "gentlemen's boot camp" programs to include girls, he said.

James said he wants to expand his programs, bring in more volunteers and build a facility where children can go after school.

"I love my community," he said.

This article originally appeared on St. Augustine Record: St. Augustine resident and youth mentor finalist for a national award

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