The Desert Men’s Council programming for the boys includes hiking.

Editor’s note: This is the next in a series spotlighting local mentoring programs in partnership with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s initiative to recruit more Tucson mentors.

Marcellino Martinez grew up in a family that didn’t cry, so he became a bottler.

Instead of expressing his emotions, the high school senior bottled them up until the pressure forced an explosion.

“If you have to go cry, you go into the bathroom, you cry, you clean yourself up, and then you come back out, because you don’t let anyone see you cry,” the 17-year-old said.

But not anymore.

During his junior year at Tucson High Magnet School, Marcellino joined a Boys to Men Tucson Mentoring circle at the school. Also known as The Desert Men’s Council, the local Boys to Men is modeled after the international nonprofit Boys to Men Mentoring.

Every week, several men circle up with about a dozen boys to check in and do life.

“There’s a confidentiality agreement in place, and our job as mentors is to create a safe space,” said T. Greg Squires, the Boys to Men Tucson program facilitator and a founding mentor. “We don’t show up as advisers, counselors or teachers. We show up as men.”

The group runs group mentoring circles in seven middle and high schools, including Tucson High, said Felipe Jacome, executive director of Boys to Men Tucson. Students connect with a circle often through referrals by social workers or counselors or by word-of-mouth from their peers.

“It was hard to get it going, because boys are very reticent to join talking groups, as you can imagine,” said Bonnie Kneller, a Tucson High social worker and board member of the Desert Men’s Council. Kneller was a lead initiator of the pilot circles at the high school, which began several years after the group’s 2009 founding. “Once word got around, we had so many boys in the last couple of years, we have had to have two groups.”

Boys can also participate in weekend adventures and other outings.

The local organization aims to double the number of circles it can run this year, Kneller said. Organizers also are talking about taking it throughout Tucson Unified School District and eventually expanding to other local districts. The nonprofit recently received $100,000 in seed money from the Del E. Webb Foundation.

To grow, the organization needs more mentors, especially men of color, to commit to an hour or two a week, said Squires.

Kneller has observed that minority students make up at least 50 percent of the circles at her school.

“It’s important that when these boys show up to these groups, they see that the mentors represent who they are,” Kneller said.

The group setting not only exposes boys to a variety of perspectives and peer support that can counter bullying, but it also removes the pressure mentors may feel in a one-on-one scenario, Jacome said.

“In group mentoring, we focus on the kids mentoring each other,” he said. “One of the challenges of growing up fatherless like so many of our boys do is that there is no male to talk to, so they don’t know how to talk to males.”

Marcellino and his friend Ronald Wadley, 18, were so impacted by the brotherhood that both are training to become junior mentors. They want to give the support they have received.

“It’s another man in our trenches,” Marcellino said of the men who show up for the circles. “It’s not another general telling us what to do. It’s another man in our trenches fighting with us.”

Wadley, who graduated in May,joined the group his freshman year at Tucson High.

“I was always told not to open up, but when I ended up with the group, I started opening up,” he said. “And we started coming together more, not as a random person we just met, but as brothers.”

Marcellino, too, went from skeptic to believer during his first semester.

“When I first started coming, I was on edge,” Marcellino said. “A bunch of people talking about their feelings? You hear that and you’re a little sketched out about it. Going in, I had a few doubts about it, but finally got in there and started talking, and I felt a sense of feeling safe, and everyone was vulnerable and we were there together.”

Both returned for following semesters.

Wadley has also learned how relax and enjoy life.

“My family is ex-military, so it was always, ‘You gotta stand strong. You’re not allowed to show emotion,’” he said. “I couldn’t smile. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t feel pain. ... I needed to learn how to do that.”

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The group also transformed his grades. At the beginning of his freshman year, Wadley said he pulled “straight F’s.” Joining the group made him realize that he didn’t have to deal with problems alone, giving him the motivation to bring his grades up to A’s and B’s for the rest of the year.

Because the mentors may also choose to share problems in the circle, they give many of the boys their first male role model to trust.

“It helps because the adults aren’t fake,” Marcellino said. “They don’t have a mask on. They’re real, and they have issues, and it shows us that life always has problems, and you’re going to solve it and then have another problem. ... It’s not hunky-dory, so you’re not wondering, ‘Why do I only have problems and no one else has problems?’”

For Wadley, the experience in the circle gave him the confidence to open up with his father.

“When I didn’t really have a good role model, I was getting into bad things, doing bad stuff,” he said. “Basically, I would have been arrested by now. Going into the group and having role models set my head straight.”

Squires and the other mentors challenge the teens to consider the man they aspire to become. And as mentors, they strive to model qualities such as integrity, vulnerability and accountability.

“My dad used to say, ‘I don’t want you to be me. I want you to be better,’” Wadley recalled. “And because of the group, I know when I have my kids, I want them to be better, and I know I’m already becoming better than my dad, so my kids will be better than me.”

Wadley is expecting twins with his fiancée in November. He enlisted in the Army and works at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as a welder. Basic training is in his near future.

Marcellino said many in his family have drug addictions, so when he thought about his future, he just knew he didn’t want that. He never gave much thought to what he did want.

Now he is college-bound. After graduation in May 2018, he has a plan.

“I’m just trying to get to college whatever way I can,” he said. “Whether through scholarships, raising money, maybe going to the military to pay for it, I’m going to college. That’s my plan. I’m getting there no matter what it takes.”

And his brothers will cheer him on.

“We’re your advisers, your posse, whatever you want to call us,” said Squires, who considers the program one of the most rewarding things he’s ever done.

“The mentors, they’re taking their time to be there for us, so it gives us that sense of value for ourselves that you might not have had,” Marcellino said. “There were moments when I felt like I wasn’t good enough or worthy enough and seeing that these men were willing to be there for me to just hear my problems gave me a sense of value for myself.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett