diva dawgs courtesy photo

The University of Georgia’s Diva Dawgs Step Team has a mentorship program for Athens students. (Photo Courtesy/Tamara English)

Torrance “Squalle” Wilcher expected to offer expertise to the University of Georgia’s Diva Dawgs Step Team from his years performing and coaching step groups, but after seeing the group’s potential and his own love for step reflected by the members, he decided to become their coach.

Now under the League of Step program that Wilcher founded to mentor step students in the Athens area and help them overcome adversity, the Diva Dawgs Step Team is making community service an integral part of its mission — mentoring local grade-school kids in step, school and life.

The LoS is an Athens-based studio that incorporates the art of step, mentorship, tutoring and community engagement. The program helps students ranging from second grade to high school seniors, offering activities like goal-setting, art workshops, poetry nights and lessons on financial literacy to foster self-sufficiency.

 “You know there's a lot of wrong in the community [of Athens] as far as the Black people [go]. We don't have much opportunity; we are not paid what we deserve. The kids don't have as much opportunity as they should,” Wilcher said.

Stepping up the grades

Keeping the students busy is a primary goal of the mentorship program, but Wilcher believes it’s saving lives. These young students have positive influences from members in the community like the Diva Dawgs mentors, and always have a home in the LoS studio.

Graceann Frias, a middle schooler and student at the LoS, said she practices three times a week, with the two-hour rehearsal blocks including time for homework and learning or reviewing steps.

Students are paired with a mentor for one-on-one attention, and the organizers work to match a student’s career interests with a mentor in that field.

Tamara English, a sophomore at UGA majoring in hospitality and food management, as well as a member of Diva Dawgs and its public relations manager, started working with the LoS as a math and science tutor. In the process of building the kids up to contribute to society and do things that they love, she has become attached to them.

“I can't put it in my heart to leave these kids and leave them out to hang by themselves. I always feel like there's more that I can do, and I can't just sit on my butt and not do anything,” English said.

English described a typical day for a Diva Dawg mentor as working on homework, mentoring and engaging in group activities.

De-Ambra Burroughs, a senior public relations major at UGA and the Diva Dawgs vice president, said helping the students get A’s and offering them life advice can help cultivate good relationships in their home and social lives. The mentors and fellow students in the program provide consistent support as students face social challenges during transitions between schools.

Burroughs has seen the Diva Dawgs gain members in the years since its formation, and she hopes that with increased membership more Diva Dawg members are matched with students to mentor.

Stepping forward

Frias, one of Burroughs’ mentees, said mentorship has helped her as a stepper and a person. The leaders at the LoS have taught her to always be confident in things that she does, to be a leader and to just be herself.

LoS is currently working to increase the scope of their community involvement and relationship with UGA.

“This semester, we're focusing on all of our team members coming in and connecting with the kids and forming that relationship with them,” Burroughs said. “[We are] also trying to [collaborate] on community service projects, and giving them the opportunity to learn more about college life.”

By the summer, Wilcher hopes to have all the Diva Dawgs participating in the LoS mentorship.

The step team is working with Athens community leaders like Wilcher as part of an increasing effort to bridge the gap between the UGA and Athens communities. Leaders in the Diva Dawgs Step Team and the LoS encourage UGA students to find volunteer work in the community they are passionate about so they can give back during their time in Athens.

“I would like for other people to experience the love and appreciation that we give to the coaches and they give to us,” Frias said