More than a jacket, a legacy

Published 6:39 pm Friday, August 25, 2023

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Karl Wilkins is on a mission to inspire the youth. 

As the Senior Site Pastor of the Mount at Suffolk Church and Founder of Cut In His Image Ministries, Wilkins just completed a project he hopes will provide inspiration to young male athletes. 

His “Operation Legacy” is designed to provide mentorship and opportunities for young men, while giving them options outside of violence and negative influences. Wilkins explained how the project began with a simple dress rehearsal.

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“It started out with a group of young football players having to dress up for an away game, and I realized that during their dress rehearsal that none of them had the proper attire,” Wilkins said. “So my wife and I, we went to every Walmart in the Hampton Roads area and we bought button down shirts and neckties for these young men so they would look presentable. Little did I know that it [wouldn’t] stop there.”

Wilkins said that God spoke to him and told him that he needed to provide the young male athletes professional collegiate jackets. This led to a campaign where Wilkins went to the community asking other men to sponsor one of the athletes by purchasing them a jacket.

“I wanted to reach out into the community and ask men if they would sponsor one of the young men by purchasing them a jacket, and the community responded as a whole,” he said. 

Wilkins said this led to an unexpected amount of support with the community coming together to provide support.

“I was totally blown away by the support of the community, because it was more than just the men. It started out with just one school, but by the time the community got involved, we were able to do six schools from two different cities. I mean there were kids who bought jackets for their colleagues,” he said. “There were businesses, there were over 20 different churches that stepped up. There were nonprofit organizations. It was just amazing. Some of everybody saw the need and as we say that it takes a village to raise a child, the village really, really came behind us and we were able to get 250 jackets for six schools in two different cities.”

This support allowed for both Suffolk and Portsmouth school students to receive jackets and culminated with a draping ceremony held Sunday, Aug. 20 at Norfolk State University. During the ceremony, the individual sponsors placed the collegiate jackets on the high school athletes while giving them positive affirmations for their future. 

Then on Aug. 21, the athletes took a trip to a football field which allowed them to stand on the field and see themselves “at the next level.” The day ended by taking the athletes going to Norfolk for a jet photo shoot, as well as providing them a T-shirt that reads, “I Am The Change.” 

Wilkins pointed to the positivity he experienced during the event.

“It was a phenomenal moment to see six high school football teams together in one place with no animosity, no confusion, no hatred, no anything,” he said. “I mean these guys gelled together, and I wanted to make a statement that the narrative that’s written about our young people, all of them are not bad. They are just misguided and they have no direction for where they’re going. We wanted to maybe create an opportunity where these young men cannot only dream, but they could see possibility.”

In a letter Wilkins wrote about the operation, he described this trip as encompassing the children’s “need for mentorship, mental health access and exposure outside their norm.” 

He also pointed out how the community and city officials can create moments and opportunities like this to help uplift the youth.

“A lot of these young men have never been out of the city, let alone ridden a chartered bus. So for me, allowing the community to come together and participate in this moment, it creates opportunities for young men to get to know some of the people within our community,” Wilkins said. “Not only that, but also to allow those professional services to be able to come and give voice and speak to mental illness and mental health, which is really a major problem within our community [and] within our youth. So I think these moments really open up the door for those opportunities.”

When talking about the future of Operation Legacy, Wilkins said he expected it to grow and include other cities in the Hampton Roads area, such as Norfolk and Newport News. 

Wilkins explained how the jackets serve as the project’s legacy of inspiring students.

“The young men do not get to keep the jackets, the jackets are left at the schools for the next year students. Therefore, the jackets will be left at the schools for the schools to be used at their discretion,” Wilkins explained. “We wanted to partner up with the school board and the superintendent to not only allow the school to educate the kids, but we believe that it’s the community’s job to cover our kids. So to us, it was more than just a jacket.”

Wilkins discussed forming a partnership that would help the school system, law enforcement and overall city while noting that instead of being “the answer,” the project is importantly a “step in the right direction.” 

“As a faith-based pastor and leader, I am believing in souls. But more so than that, if I don’t get a soul, if I could get one of those young men that owns or possesses a gun … if I could that young man to look at himself and say ‘Wow, because of this Operation Legacy I had the opportunity to dream, and I want to be able to follow in that. So, I’m going to make a decision to get rid of this gun and chase my dream,’” he said. “I am hoping that we can save lives that way. And not just that, but I am hoping that parents will be able to see their kids making more appropriate decisions that would not allow them to go down the path of destruction.”