When Alonzo Henley was growing up in Miami, his father was head custodian at Allapattah Junior High School. His dad liked to show him off and introduce him to everyone at the school — cafeteria workers, teachers, the principal. From a young age, Henley learned from his father to be proud of what he did and to always do it well.
"Everyone highly admired my father," Henley says. "And it just so happened I followed in his footsteps. It means a lot to me."
For the past 15 years, Henley has worked at Brownsville Middle School, first as a security guard and now as a custodian. Last month, Henley became a finalist for the national Custodians Are Key award program, which recognizes the work of custodial staff members across the U.S. and Canada. Henley is among the top three finalists out of a nominating pool of almost 2,200. The program awards $5,000 to the winning custodian and $10,000 to the school.
In his nomination letter, Brownsville assistant principal David Galarce wrote that Henley was "an integral part" of getting students back to school amid the pandemic.
"He worked tirelessly during the summer to make sure students had a safe learning environment to return to," Galarce wrote. "He also conducted home visits during this time to ensure students had all the resources they needed for the beginning of the school year."
When Henley worked as a security monitor, he loved being among the first people to see students when they started their day. After a while, though, he wanted to do something different. One day in 2016, Brownsville Middle School's then-principal saw him cleaning up the cafeteria before lunchtime.
"The cafeteria was already clean, but I wanted to mop the floor and make sure things were extra clean," Henley recounts.
The principal asked him if he wanted to be a custodian, and he said yes. It felt like the right time to take on a new job with more responsibilities. Now, Henley is in charge of cleaning about 15 classrooms, eight bathrooms, the school's main office, and the principal's office.
Becoming a custodian felt like a natural fit. Like his father, he takes pride in where he works and providing a safe and healthy environment for students to learn. Plus, Henley loves to clean, so work doesn't feel like work. As children, playtime with his older sister often consisted of rearranging furniture and cleaning their home.
"It's something that's a part of me," he says.
Henley's custodial duties begin at 11 a.m., but he usually arrives at the school before 7:30. As site director of the middle school's 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, he's in charge of mentoring young boys, making sure they keep their grades up, and preparing them for high school and beyond.
Each morning, Henley does a roll call for his role models. He checks their uniforms and shoes, straightens their ties, and encourages them to do well in their classes. These days, he also makes sure each student has a mask, as well as all the necessary school supplies for their day.
"My job is to be there for them, guide them, and make sure I'm leading them the right way," Henley says. "And when my job starts, I do everything I can."
Henley's coworkers say they see him as much more than a custodian. To Brownsville principal Marcus Miller, Henley is a father to all students.
"So many of our young men, just like myself, don't have their dad active in their lives," Miller says. "Growing up, I knew he was there, but in terms of going to my school, taking part in activities, and taking part in my life, he wasn't there. Mr. Henley stands in the gap for the dads that are not there. He's looked at as a father by many of our young men. He does a great job. Sometimes he's even able to turn some students around."
If a teacher needs help with a student and is considering sending them to the principal's office, they call Henley first.
"You can't always get a parent on the phone. But there's someone in the building that can be there for these young men," Brownsville math coach Brandi Crystal says. "I think that's what makes him really special."
Deborah Dawson, a Brownsville reading teacher, once had an issue with one of the boys in Henley's 5000 Role Models program. She called Henley and asked him to speak with the student.
"I have students who will try to act all tough in front of classmates, but when Mr. Henley takes them outside, they become very humble," Dawson says. "When he brings a kid back to the classroom, [the student] apologizes for the bad behavior or whatever the case may be."
Henley says he likes to show students respect by listening to what they have to say before chiming in.
"A lot of times they get in trouble, and I have to step in," he says. "Sometimes I'll have teachers call me and I'll have to pull a young man to the side and do my best to encourage them. They do have their moments. And that's the challenge, because you don't know what they're going through on a daily basis."
At Brownsville, it's not rare for students to have loved ones who've died of gun violence. Henley is sometimes called to talk to students who are shouldering grief and pain. Dawson says there are times when she sees that Henley is frustrated because he can't reach all the students who need an advocate.
"There are kids who were a role model, but the streets won," she says. "They decided not to be a role model because it wasn't cool. That weighs on him."
But Henley's colleagues say he has a knack for communicating with students in a way that doesn't make them defensive. He mentors them and offers support rather than administering a scolding.
Miller recalls a time when a male student hugged and kissed a girl he had a crush on in the hallway. Henley had a talk with the boy about consent.
"It goes back to respect," Henley says. "You have to let them know there are certain things you just can't do. And one question I would ask is, 'How would you feel if a young man tried your sister or mother in that manner? How would another brother or dad feel about how you're treating their daughter?'"
At the height of the COVID pandemic, students were doing online schooling, but Henley still reported to work every day to sanitize Brownsville and two other schools in anticipation of the kids' return. And he continued trying to meet the needs of his 5000 Role Model mentees. He'd visit them at home, take a bag full of snacks, and make sure they had all the school supplies they needed. The students sometimes told him they felt bored and trapped. They wanted to see their friends and play games. He'd tell them to hang in there and say that he was around if they needed someone to talk to.
"I just basically wanted to make sure that my mentees were all right, knowing that this pandemic really brought a complete change in everyone's life, and to see how they were handling their situation," he says.
Crystal, the math coach, says Henley carries a spirit of excellence in everything he does, and especially in how he treats students at the school. She once had a pair of students in her class whose family was living in a car. With the parent's permission, Henley took the male student home with him so he had a place to shower, wash his uniform, and eat meals.
"Mr. Henley made sure the student stayed in school and maintained his grades," Crystal says. "Mr. Henley gave that kid the dignity and the respect to not make him feel less than."
Henley lives in the community where he works and sometimes has the pleasure of seeing former students out and about, or of getting unexpected visits at the school. About a year ago, a student visited him to thank him for being in his life.
"He let me know that he was going through something at the time when he was here, but that I didn't give up on him," Henley says.
The former mentee told Henley that he'd finished high school, had a job, and planned to learn a trade.
"That let me know that I did my job," Henley says.
Every story of a student completing high school feels like a personal success for Henley. He likes celebrating his role models' accomplishments as much as he likes hearing about them. For the end-of-year 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project awards ceremony, Henley decorates the cafeteria, organizes a program, and invites the students' parents so they can celebrate their sons, too. At the ceremony, he hands out awards for leadership, attendance, and ambassadorship.
"I try to let them know that they're vital to this program," he says. "And that I want to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing."
Henley says he feels his purpose is to leave an impact on kids' lives and an impression on their character. He says it's also important to him to teach young boys how to love.
"I want to teach them that love is real," he says. "And it's OK to love. It's OK to love everybody. A lot of young men don't know how to show their brothers love, and to me, this is a start. When they have lunch, I have them sit together and let them know, 'You're a brotherhood. Your brotherhood is a team. You come together. Learn how to love one another. Learn how to be there for one another.'"
Someday, he says, they might become fathers themselves.
"They can teach their son how to show love to their brother," he says. "Let's take this thing on, take it farther. That's my goal."