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Monday, June 10, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Breakfast Group -- Men On A Mission

Seven years ago, a small group of African-American men began gathering once a month at the Sorrento Hotel for breakfast. They were lawyers, educators, politicians and entrepreneurs who had been high-school and college buddies and had known each other for years.

The breakfast meetings were more than a reunion of old classmates, however. Though all 16 had risen to prominent levels in their careers and most had families, they discovered something was missing in their lives.

Each had donated time or money to charitable causes, but they had a desire to do more. Their answer: to improve life in the Central District, an area to which they felt strong bonds.

Their morning meals took on a larger meaning. Instead of discussing politics or their own career moves, they spoke of lending a hand to young males - tutoring them in classwork, talking to them about careers and giving money to community efforts that would help them.

As word spread, more men joined them. They began calling themselves The Breakfast Group.

Their goal is to enhance the well-being of African-Americans, especially young males, in areas such as health, employment and education, while eliminating the scourge of drugs. Though many organizations in the Puget Sound region are dedicated to those causes, The Breakfast Group is one of the few that's focusing on the plight of black males, who hold a tragic distinction right now: Violence is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 25.

Although these traps do not snare all African-American males, The Breakfast Group's efforts are aimed at helping others avoid the same fate.

"It's nothing more than our effort to make Seattle, King County and the state of Washington a better place for all of its citizens," said Herman McKinney, the group's co-convener and the owner of Simart, Inc., a management-consulting firm. "Because what affects you, affects me and vice-versa. It's just that simple."

Glass picture windows extend the length of their meeting room on the 28th floor of the Stouffer Madison hotel. From there, one can see the Rainier Valley, which includes the Central District - the CD as it is called - a place where too many teen-agers are growing up without fathers, and where many have limited exposure to those with careers.

It is with these young men, of whom nearly three out of 10 in Washington are unemployed , where the heart of the club lies.

They gather on the first Thursday of every month. Seated at round tables, with plates of scrambled eggs, home fries, cereal and coffee, Breakfast Group members listen to pitches for money or time from people within their group, or from representatives of other charitable causes. Membership technically is open to anyone, but the group's members are all African-American males.

In the audience, are some of the city's well-known power brokers, such as Norm Rice, mayor of Seattle; Charles Mitchell, president of Seattle Central Community College; Claude Harris, fire chief for Seattle; Jesse Wineberry, state representative; Carver Gayton, director of college and university relations for The Boeing Co.; Gayton's brother, Gary, a lawyer in private practice; Jim Nicholson, chief executive officer of Myriad System and Service, a telecommunications company; Larry Gossett, director of the Central Area Motivation Program; and Leon Smith, president of Emerald City Bank.

With a diverse membership that includes "Republicans and Democrats; Baptists and Methodists and Catholics," as McKinney puts it, the meetings are free-flowing. Members can argue in support of causes.

"We have people who can truly can make a difference in the community," said McKinney, who added that the presence of some of these prominent Seattle businessmen has attracted guest speakers, including Gov. Booth Gardner. Later this month, Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, will address the group.

"If a young person is interested in dental school or law school, or in business administration," McKinney said, "there are resources within the group that can steer that young person in the right direction. I suppose if there is an underlying theme, it is that we're interested in truly reaching back and helping someone else achieve, because all of us had help along the way."

Some projects are still in the planning stages. They include:

-- Finding ways of informing parents about better health and nutrition habits for their children and for themselves. A program to encourage eating less fats, cutting down on cholesterol and exercising more often may be coordinated through the Seattle School District.

-- Supporting the city's economic-development efforts to revitalize the Central District and Rainier Valley with retail shops and other businesses.

-- Spreading information about the importance of education or vocational training through the school systems, or possibly, holding some student seminars.

-- Providing financial support to those involved in nontraditional sports, such as tennis and skiing. The group has sponsored aspiring athletes at Seattle Tennis Center to tennis summer camps and paid for others to learn skiing with the Four Seasons Ski Club.

-- Encouraging young businessmen to join the group. With most members between 35 and 60, younger blood is needed to perpetuate the ideas and programs of the group.

Lately, however, members have been asking themselves: Wwhat is the best way to help others to organize their own volunteer efforts, or to support the efforts of other groups?

"I think we're wrestling with that," said Robert Flowers, the Breakfast Group's other co-convener and the vice president of the commercial real estate division for Washington Mutual Savings Bank. "We want to continue to share information and focus on activities that involve youth. So, on the one hand, we want to be proactive, but, at the same time, we want to look to see which issues are occurring and try to address them."

Thus, the answer for the group is probably a little of both. Now that membership has grown to 143, and with the group's potential for more growth, it will have a higher profile. Efforts to raise its visibility began two years ago, as reports surfaced in mainstream media about crimes committed by gangs and the lack of male role models.

Over the months, as membership rolls swelled, the group became more formalized. Annual membership fees of $50 are collected for a purpose that hasn't been decided yet but will likely will be used for scholarships.

"We felt a need to become more structured, because there's a lack of awareness of what organizations like the Breakfast Group and others are doing," Flowers said. "Now, we're making more people aware of it."

In April, the group hosted a black-tie banquet for Garfield High School's basketball team, which won the Group AAA state tournament, and its coach, Al Hairston. The athletes were honored with $100 rings bought by the Breakfast Group. Hairston also was honored for his success in coaching his teams to five state championships during his 12-year tenure.

On this year's agenda is a career day for teen-agers. The group's hope is that the teens will understand how education translates into a career and realize their importance to the nation's labor pool. Government studies show that as white birth rates continue declining, people of color will have a significantly larger presence in the work force by the turn of the century.

"It's going to open some eyes and will provide young people with a multitude of career opportunities," said Jim Liddell, a board member of the group and vice president of human resources at Security Pacific Bank. "They don't see many African-Americans in other jobs right now, except as athletes, doctors and lawyers."

While group leaders acknowledge the hurdle before them, they are pleased by the efforts made so far. They remain confident in what the group stands for and what it can achieve in the months ahead.

"Our future is yet to come with the kinds of things we will be able to do for this community, for Seattle and for the state as a whole," McKinney said.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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