A few years ago, I started the At-Risk American Male Education Network (AAMEN) in Jonesboro, Ark. AAMEN is an afterschool program, a faith-based organization that reaches out to young males between the ages of 15 and 21. We work with at-risk young men to help them engage with others, and to use various tools and resources they need to become productive citizens, lessening their dependence on social and governmental structures and nurturing them as positive male role models. We have about 40 young men in our program each year, and we pride ourselves on our 98-percent high-school graduation rate.
At AAMEN we mentor, teach, guide, and model. We help our kids with their academics, and we try to provide them with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. A lot of our young men want and need some support with math, so we provide tutoring to help get them up to grade level or better. This year, we took some of our students on a trip to visit local colleges. At one level, it was about helping them make choices about where to apply. But at another level, it was about helping them envision themselves in college—studying, joining extracurricular organizations, fitting in.
The idea of attending college is no small leap for many of our kids. Many have grown up in an environment where prison is more likely than college. So in addition to help with their studies, we try to help them imagine a different future, and give them the tools and support they need to make it a reality.
It works. We have good kids in our program, but most of them needed some help finding their way.
Aaron has been with us for five years, for example, joining us when he was in 7th grade. He’s now a junior in high school. He says he came to us because he needed to “get to know God a little better, and to learn how to stay on the right track,” but also to practice for the ACT and to get help staying out of trouble. He’s a kid who knows he wants to make something of his life; he just got off to a hard start. By age 9, he was using and selling drugs. Along the way, he got shot in the head, and lost a brother to violence, too. By the time his family moved to Jonesboro, he was running out of second chances. He’ll tell you he’s changed a lot because of his experience here, and we’ve tried to be there for him, for whatever he needed, helping him keep on the straight and narrow, and helping him to build a relationship with God. He’s got another year of high school, and if all goes well, he’ll be off to college the following year—a very different outcome than the one imagined for him when he was lying in the hospital recovering from a bullet wound.
Seventeen-year-old Marco will tell you right up front that he’s had issues with anger and a couple of scrapes with the law. His dad’s in jail, and one thing he needed above all else was a strong male role model. So we’ve tried to provide that, helping with his anger management. As he puts it, “I started going to AAMEN and realized that instead of being bad, I could go and learn something about life…. They helped me see that school is important in life, not just something you’ve got to do. It’ll help you be a better man in life.”
Eighteen-year-old Kaylan has his own story. He’s also been with the program for several years, after moving to Jonesboro from a small, rural community in Arkansas, where he says there wasn’t a lot to do. When his family first moved here, his mother enrolled him with AAMEN, and he’s been with us ever since. Jonesboro’s not a big city, but it’s got lots to offer, and we’ve tried to connect him to it, while helping providing him with a supportive community. A senior in high school, he’s planning to go to college in Georgia next year.
Reggie joined us when he was in 9th grade, after I visited his junior high school for a talk. He needed mentoring, as well as tutoring in reading, math and science. When it was time to take the ACT, we helped cover the cost of taking the test, and gave him some guidance on how to succeed on it. He did just that, applied to college, and is headed to the University of Arkansas in Little Rock next year with the help of a scholarship.
Then there’s Anthony, a 17-year-old who came to the program three years ago because he needed help with math. He was struggling in 9th grade, and we provided tutoring, some mentoring and some guidance on the ACT test. He’s been accepted to the University of Central Arkansas, and plans to attend this fall.
Those kinds of success stories don’t come easily. Not for us, for afterschool programs in general, or—to tell the truth—for any other program designed to support kids facing tough challenges. We work hard to engage our kids, to make sure they have the academic support they need, and to counter the inevitable tug from social pressures to take the short cuts that could land them in trouble.
But when we take the time, when we invest the energy and resources, the rewards last a lifetime. These kids are on their way. We’ll keep an eye on them, and continue to support them as they build their lives in college and after, and we might even call on them for some help in our work at AAMEN. We’ve got a lot more kids coming our way, and they’ll need our help just as much.