Kenny Doss knows what the wrong side of the door looks like.

He knows the soft click of it closing firmly against him, knows how final it sounds and how the emptiness feels that accompanies it. He knows, in the same way, how deceptive a path can look, how it looks so bright and open at first and then doesn’t.

That’s why he’s thankful beyond words to have found the path at last that led him to Manchester University. And it’s why Doss – a 6-foot-1 guard on MU’s basketball team who tried three other schools before coming to Manchester – is so determined to help others avoid the wrong side of those wrong doors.

“By me being a first-generation (student) going away to college and playing sports, a lot of different doors were closing in my face,” says Doss, who grew up on Chicago’s tough south side. “I fell on my face so many times. And after looking back on the whole situation, I felt like I kind of know what route to take and which way to go.

“So I feel like rather than keep that to myself, I’d rather help someone else so they don’t have to make the same mistakes that I made, and they can just go through life much easier without the same bumps and hiccups that I had to go through.”

That was the genesis of Bridge The Gap, a nonprofit conceived by Doss that gets kids in his old neighborhood off the street and puts basketballs in their hands. The idea is to provide both a safe haven and some structure, and it flows from an impulse to make a difference in his world that is in the best tradition of MU and its mission. 

Doss and his father run the program, which includes 60 to 70 kids and encompasses both a summer basketball tournament and one over Christmas. Some of the kids play; some show up either to watch or help out keeping the scorebook and picking up trash. The mission, Doss says, is to “stop the violence and change the culture of the neighborhood.” It’s about offering kids headed down the wrong path a way out, and helping kids who haven’t yet chosen a path find the right one.

Doss credits his dad with helping him put the whole thing together.

“He just was that support system behind it,” Doss says. “I had an idea, I had a vision, and I didn’t know where to start. He was just like an inspiration. He was always there for me, supporting and pushing me and letting me know whatever I did he was behind me 100 percent.”

Finding Manchester didn’t hurt that process, either. It gave him, he says, a place that felt like home that gave him self-confidence and made him feel centered and secure. 

“The fact it was a small school and was so sort of family-oriented, that’s what attracted me,” says Doss, a professional sales major who had no idea what he wanted to do until he came to Manchester. “And the professors … It’s almost to the point where you can’t fail unless you want to fail. The help is always there if you need it. 

“They bend over backwards to make sure you’re OK, that you’re comfortable. The students here, roommates, people who live on my floor … It’s really one big family. I get to be myself at all times, no one judges me or anything like that.”

It is, in other words, an open-door sort of place – a place, it turns out, that is helping Kenny Doss open doors for others. 

-- Benjamin Smith