CLEVELAND — A West Park Academy custodian didn’t let his title stop him from creating ways to help students at his school. He realized kids at the school needed an outlet to help them thrive, so he created one, becoming a huge source of inspiration while making Cleveland “A Better Land.”
Everyone remembers that someone who had a tremendous impact on their life when they were a kid. Maybe it was a teacher, a coach or an older cousin. For many of the students at West Park Academy in Cleveland, that person is their former school custodian.
“I think Mr. G is a very nice person, and he’s very kind and sweet,” said student La’Niya Randall.
Joseph Gates, or “Mr. G” as he’s known around West Park, went from cleaning the building to building up the confidence and self-esteem of students there.
“Once he’s in front of people, whether it's children or adults, he’s the light in the room,” said Principal Michael Jaissle.
Gates said that as a product of the foster care system, he knows how important it is for adults to stay connected and engaged with children so they can thrive.
That’s why he always makes it a point to know what’s going on in students' lives. One of the ways he did that was by turning the school’s lunch hour into a dance showcase.
“I’ll do crump, a little flexing, pop-locking, things of that nature, slide around — do some Michael Jackson,” Gates said. “I love children. I was more engaged in the children — I was more than just a janitor. A lot of people thought I was the dean or someone.”
Gates said dancing is what helped him growing up, so about one year into his job as a custodian at West Park, he went to Principal Jaissle with an idea. He wanted to start an after-school dance program for students.
“[Jaissle] asked me a bunch of questions — why I wanted to do it — and I told him it’s actually to use the influence of dance to start incorporating and bringing back principals and morals,” Gates said.
Jaissle gave Gates the greenlight, and “ROAD,” short for “Reaching Out and Dancing,” was born.
When asked why he believed Gates was qualified to lead the program, Jaissle said, “His qualifications may not come on a piece of paper, but his qualifications come with his relationship with students and that instant impact he has with our families. The moment you speak to him, you’re engaged.”
The program has been around for three years, giving kids an outlet to be creative and vulnerable.
“We like to find different TikTok songs and took like a couple parts of all of it and put it into a dance,” La’Niya said.
“I love it here, because everybody’s like my family here,” said ROAD participant Aliyah Williams.
“This is something that overwhelmingly was something that students were yearning for,” Jaissle said, adding that the program “holds them accountable in the classroom. It holds them accountable with their behavior.”
There are about 25 kids that participate on a regular basis, and they were anxious to show off what they’ve learned in ROAD.
When News 5’s Courtney Gousman asked the students in ROAD who wanted to show off their routine, the response was so enthusiastic, she couldn’t help but join in herself.
Gates said he has plans to get his program into other schools in Northeast Ohio, and eventually turn it into a dance league.
“While learning dance moves and things of that nature, we’re working on their personal identities,” Gates said. “It gives them a sense of responsibility and a sense of pride.”
This dance program is free to West Park students—and Gates said that while there is a small amount of funding, much of the effort comes out of the pockets of him and his wife.
“I am so proud of Mr. G,” Jaissle said. “When he came to me with these ideas, they were just notes on a piece of paper…His dreams have really come true. He dreamt it. He wanted it. ”
This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.