Youth Group Hopes to Use Hampden Storefront to Involve School Kids in Community Improvement
The Y.O.U.R.S. store in Hampden is located in a small, but bright and sunny, space. The walls are painted light green, the curtains are yellow, and the items in the store--mostly T-shirts--are neatly organized on shelves and racks. The first thing visitors see when they walk in the door is the Y.O.U.R.S. logo painted on the wall: a silhouette of two kids standing next to one another, one raising a shovel over his head, above letters spelling out Y.O.U.R.S.
The acronym Y.O.U.R.S. stands for Youth Organizing Urban Revitalization Systems, which is the formal name of the nonprofit organization that opened the Hampden store. Its goal, executive director Najib Jammal says, is to "empower youth to create community involvement in the learning process." More specifically, it helps prepare city school kids for academic and career success by getting them involved in community and economic development activities (such as the founding of the Y.O.U.R.S. store, which opened in June) that give kids a sense of social responsibility and involvement in the community. The organization, which was founded in 2004 as a grass-roots effort between students, teachers, and community members, sponsors activities and workshops that not only give young people things to do after school is out but also show them how to help themselves by teaching them crafts and skills they can apply in the real world.
A young man sits behind a glass counter in the Y.O.U.R.S. store that displays jewelry for sale. His name is Kevin Womack Jr., and he's a recent graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, an alumnus of the Y.O.U.R.S. program, and manager of the store. He says the beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings for sale at the store are handmade by students during after-school workshops run by teachers and local artists; the workshops are one of many programs that Y.O.U.R.S. provides for inner-city kids.
Womack is 20 but just got his high school diploma in May.
"Nobody probably thought I would graduate," he says. He was held back and spent time in juvenile detention centers when he was younger because of fighting. Kevin says that Y.O.U.R.S. helped him to get through high school by giving him a positive outlet and a sense of accomplishment and pride in his work. "I love coming to work," he says.
Y.O.U.R.S. holds classes in entrepreneurship, which is at the center of the organization's programming. Kids involved in the Y.O.U.R.S. program learn software proficiency, communication skills, and grant-writing techniques that they can apply by working at the Y.O.U.R.S. store, which opened in June to sell student-produced goods through a web site (bmoreyours.org) and the Hampden storefront. The goal is to give young people a sense of pride and ownership in their work and to equip them for jobs in today's workplace. The store's inventory consists mostly of T-shirts, but it also sells lip balms, books, CDs, jewelry, tea, note cards, and school bags.
The store is operated by the kids enrolled in the Y.O.U.R.S. program. Y.O.U.R.S. students work in the store, make the items, and handle sales. Volunteers, Y.O.U.R.S. staff, and teachers help cover the bases the students may not be equipped to handle just yet. For example, managing director Andy Ellis, a former debate coach for Towson University but now full-time Y.O.U.R.S. staff, handles the store's taxes and payroll. Ellis says that as soon as a student interested in finance gets involved in the organization, he or she will be trained to take over the task.
"We don't make the divide between students and staff until we have to," Ellis says. "We do what we can to help them connect with what their interests are."
For example, once Womack got involved with Y.O.U.R.S., he became an enthusiastic supporter of the organization's efforts. So he was offered the opportunity to manage the new store when it opened.
The store's profits will be directed to Y.O.U.R.S. programs around the city, including mural painting, community garden, and spoken-word performance projects. Some money will also be used to purchase supplies for teachers in city schools--the idea is to be able to send struggling city schools gift baskets containing chalk, paper, pens, and other basic office supplies that teachers often have to pay for out of their own pockets.
Ellis says that the newly opened store has not broken even yet, so it hasn't been able to fund any of these projects. He says the organization hopes to get grants or funding from outside the city, which it will then reinvest in projects that help stimulate Baltimore's economy and communities. "From a business perspective, we want to reach outside Baltimore," he says.
On Aug. 22 a group of Y.O.U.R.S. members are gathered at the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology in Canton to put the finishing touches on a mural they painted there. The mural depicts a yellow smiley face wearing a graduation cap, surrounded by colorful block letters that read: every student college ready. Jammal, Womack, Frederick Douglass High School junior Tony Connor, and Baltimore City Community College fashion major Danielle Tyler, all of whom had a hand in this mural, talk about the goals they hope to meet through Y.O.U.R.S. Tyler says she recently designed her own fashion line called Dantel (which stands for Doing All Necessary to Enjoy Life), and she hopes to sell bags she designed at the Hampden store beginning in September; she also hopes to teach after-school fashion-design workshops for Y.O.U.R.S. students. Connor, a quarterback on Douglass' football team, says he has designed several T-shirts that are for sale at the Y.O.U.R.S. store now.
Jammal is proud of the students' accomplishments and the things the program has helped them achieve, and he takes an active interest in the kids who participate in the organization's programs. When Womack was a troubled student in and out of detention centers, for example, contact with Y.O.U.R.S. helped keep him grounded. Jammal visited him and brought him books to keep up his spirits.
Jammal says he started the program in the spring of 2004 when he was teaching Spanish 1 and 2 at Douglass High. He and Teri Ray, who at the time was also working at Douglass and is now the Y.O.U.R.S. education director, saw at-risk students struggling in school. They gathered a group of experienced teachers to talk about ways to reach the students, prepare them for their futures, and involve them in community-improvement projects.
After that, "we just started making moves and got off the couch," says Gibran McDonald, a co-founder of Y.O.U.R.S.. McDonald says he taught students with emotional problems in Atlanta before moving to Baltimore to finish his master's in business administration at Morgan State University; he received his degree in 2005. Because teachers interact with students every day, he says, they have insight into kids' problems that other people don't, which gives them a unique opportunity to change their lives--and the community. McDonald says conditions in city schools make many teachers feel helpless, but Y.O.U.R.S. gives teachers a chance to interact with kids outside of the classroom.
"There were not too many avenues for high school teachers to get involved," Jammal adds. Many young teachers, some of them coming from the Teach for America program, like Jammal did, enter into their careers in the city school system with a lot of energy. But if that energy and enthusiasm is not harnessed, it can quickly disappear. Y.O.U.R.S. leaders hope to engage some of that and channel it back to students and the community. Right now, Jammal says, 12 educators--both veteran and new--have gotten involved with Y.O.U.R.S. "There's a lot of energy sweeping the country for change right now," he says. He wants Y.O.U.R.S. to be part of that wave for change.
This year, Jammal hopes, will be a big one for Y.O.U.R.S. It's the first year since the organization was founded that it has three full-time staff members--himself, Womack, and Ellis. The organization has partnered with several new schools, including the Baltimore Freedom Academy, Walbrook High School, Learning Inc., and the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, which will take advantage of its programs, including SAT prep courses, teacher and student mentoring, entrepreneurial and technology training, and after-school programs.
And then there's the store, where Womack will be working every day, hoping to sell enough T-shirts, jewelry, and bags to make an impact on the city.
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