story by Shaila Creekmore, photo by Abigail Boone
publication by Jonesboro Occassions
In 2010, CityYouth Ministries was presented with an offer it couldn’t refuse: The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation presented the center with a program it wanted to see implemented in Jonesboro, which it would fund for three years. Now, as the program moves toward its final months of that three-year grant, CityYouth is reaching out to the community to keep the program alive.
AAMEN, African American Male Education Network, focuses on males in ninth through 12th grade, primarily at Jonesboro High School. According to Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s website, the grant was awarded “to support the implementation of CityYouth’s college readiness programs focused on African American males and support the development of a state level ‘best practices’ learning community specific to the issue of marginalized males and higher education.”
According to the latest numbers released in January by the U.S. Department of Education, the drop-out rate for Arkansas is 3.6 percent. The drop-out percentage for African American students is 5 percent in-state and 5.5 nationwide.
“Our target goal was to take those males that could fall either way — kids that haven’t really been in trouble, but could have problems — and get them to commit to attend and remain in high school through graduation,” said Rennell Woods, director of CityYouth Ministries. “Then we work with them to develop plans for after graduation whether it be the military path, college or trade school. “Our goal is for them to become self-sufficient, highly engaged members of their community and then to turn around and invest in their own community.”
AAMEN currently has 45 youth involved in the program, including a number of those graduating in May who began the program in 10th grade. The students meet each Monday and Thursday after school and once a month at JHS as an organized student organization. Dr. Wilbert Gaines, an ASU associate professor emeritus, serves as facilitator of AAMEN.
The program includes many aspects of learning, including equipping them with skills for both making it through high school and life after graduation, building a resume and completing college applications, as well as going as a group with whom they can do various activities such as bowling, attending ballgames and visiting college campuses.
The keys to the program are 10 mentors who work closely with a small number of mentees. Gaines said that from the initiation of the program, they knew that building relationships would be essential keeping students engaged in the program. The mentors are college students who volunteer to lead the afternoon programs and spend time one-on-one doing simple activities like getting ice cream, visiting the ASU campus or going to get a haircut.
Alshon Rose, a junior pre-pharmacy chemistry major at ASU, has served as a mentor for two years and has five mentees. Rose said being able to interact individually with the students has allowed him to get to know them better and to better understand their individual problems.
“It helps when you know someone is there who cares about how you are doing and to encourage them,” said Rose. “They don’t always get that encouragement in their home or at school, but to show them someone cares.”
When students enroll in the program, they first must develop their career goals, as well as sign AAMEN’s personal mottos. The five mottos state that the student will not allow anything to hinder himself from working toward his lifetime goals daily; that he will not allow anything to hinder himself from passing a drug test; that he will not place anything in social media that could hinder him from passing a background check; that he will take personal responsibility for his behavior; and that he will be a good ambassador for the AAMEN, CityYouth and JHS programs.
“We know that even though they pledge it, they are going to make mistakes,” said Gaines. “But, we are here to give them second chances. We want to be a fire preventer. We want to step into their lives and help them develop career goals that work for them.”
Gaines said they work with each student to discover what his gifts and talents are and then to list their top four choices for a career. The students first list their dream job, then their next choice and so on, giving Gaines and the mentor ways to work toward those career goals.
“We lead them on a guided discovery,” said Gaines. “We know what they need, but we want them to discover what they need.”
Like all CityYouth programs, AAMEN has a spiritual focus, as well. Gaines himself was reached in a similar program as a teenager, returned to church and turned his focus to attending college.
“I know there is a connection between church – the spiritual – and overcoming some of these barriers,” said Gaines.
At the end of this school year, the grant money for AAMEN will end, but CityYouth is not yet ready to let go of their successful program. Woods said funding and assistance to continue the program will now need to come from the Jonesboro community.
“This is a bold, innovation program,” said Woods. “This is a conversation in our state, but it has not really been dealt with on any real level. We talk about statistics, barriers and issues … and the fact is, a bulk of it is driven from the African American males. If no one steps up to it, we are going to continue to have these issues. It has to be everyone coming to the table. Now is the time for the community to step in and help continue this program.”
Woods, who also serves as an alderman on the Jonesboro City Council, noted that the city continues to grow annually at 6.7 percent.
“Jonesboro has been on the edge of being urban for a long time,” said Woods. “This program has opened our eyes to have this conversation now and deal with these issues now as our city grows. Now is our time here in Jonesboro to step in to prevent and deal with some of these things.”
Woods said he would first like to ask the community to pray for AAMEN and the other programs of CityYouth and the children that it serves. Financial needs will also need to be met to continue running AAMEN and to possibly expand it in the future to include other students and even other schools. Meeting the financial need of the programs means that the organization needs donations from individuals, churches and businesses, both monetary and through products or services.
Rose said having businesses provide things like free ice cream and free activities such as bowling would help the mentors do more outside of CityYouth with their mentees. Woods said local businesses are also needed to partner with AAMEN to give the students jobs.
“The bottom line is, if these kids can get some resources, they can do many things,” said Woods. “Some may be willing to mentor in certain fields. That would really go a long way.”
Woods encourages anyone who is interested to call the center and ask questions and to set up a meeting to learn about the issues facing the children of CityYouth.
To learn more about AAMEN or how to help, call Woods at 870-203-0995.