South LA teens graduate from Boys to Men program

At the end of the program, the boys get their graduation certificates.

“I’ve learned that I can get a better job than what I was hoping to get and that there’s people that are going to help me stay out of trouble.” That’s one of the main lessons 13 year-old Demal Jordan Brown says he has picked up during his eight week participation in the “Boys to Men” mentoring program.

“I also learned about gangs,” says Demal. “I don’t think you can accomplish anything by being in a gang and putting yourself in harm’s way.”

Demal is one of 11 teens who graduated from the most recent “Boys to Men” program run by the non-profit On a Mission.

The eight-week course starts with lectures about the dangers of gangs and drugs and includes a visit to a prison to see, first hand, the consequences of illegal behavior. Participants are then taught about the importance of respect, responsibility and self-esteem. But most of all, they’re encouraged to think big in terms of their future. “I want to be a doctor,” states Demal.

George Karnoub, Assistant Manager, and Rosie Espinoza, Associate Support Department Supervisor of the Hyde Park Home Depot, listen to one of the applicants as he interviews for a job.

The final test of the program is a mock job interview. The plan is for George Karnoub, an Assistant Manager and Rosie Espinoza, Associate Support Department Supervisor of the Hyde Park Home Depot, a strong supporter of On a Mission programs, to interview all of the participants and grade their performance.

“We want to help them prepare,” says Karnoub. “We give them feedback and advice after we finish the interviews, so they can do a better job in a real interview.”

The kids have been preparing, but they’re nervous. They’ve done their resumés and are trying to remember the pointers they got the previous week about how to talk to a prospective employer. But have they got what it takes to get hired?

Brent West, 13, shows Darian Williams, 15, how to tie his tie, prior to the mock job interview.

As they wait their turn, 13 year-old Brent West shows a struggling Darian Williams, 15, how to tie his tie. “I just can’t get it right,” exclaims Darian in frustration. He shares that his mother has already lined up a summer job for him and that he’s anxious to turn 16. “So I can start driving,” he says. He already bought a car. It’s sitting in his parent’s garage until his birthday in September.

Even though several of the class participants admitted they didn’t want to be in the program at first, in the end, they’re all enthused about it.

“I didn’t want to come, but after the first day, I liked it and wanted to keep coming,” says Brent. “One of the things I liked best was how to get a job and dress for success.”

He’s only 13, but the small-framed Brent appears to be very focused and determined to achieve his goals. “I want to get a job this summer. I would do anything,” he says. “I can sweep the floors in a barbershop or carry boxes.” Brent wants to save money for college. He aspires to attend to Stanford or Harvard University and wants to become a computer game developer.

Home Depot managers give the boys feedback on their interviews.

At the end of the class, the Home Depot interviewers present the kids with their scores. They explain what they could’ve done better in order to secure the job. So who would’ve gotten hired if this would’ve been a real interview?

“Brent,” announces Espinoza. While some teammates clapped and congratulated him, others groaned. “I was sure I got it,” one boy said, disappointed he didn’t get picked.

They’re young. Some come from broken homes, others have troubled backgrounds, or are brought in by their parents to prevent them from hanging out with the wrong crowd. But they all have dreams. All it takes is for people to believe, trust and dedicate the time to help them evolve from boys to men.

On a Mission: Building a brighter future for South LA youth

A group of kids traveled with On a Mission to Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

Sometimes, all it takes is one person on a mission to get an idea rolling. Meet Edwin Henderson, a South LA-raised athlete who has focused his energy on building his idea: creating programs that help youth aspire to a better life.

“I grew up in this area. I went to school here. I saw the problems. I saw the need,” says Henderson, founder of On a Mission. “After college, I came back to work in social service jobs. It was important for me to try to make a difference.”

Henderson won a football scholarship to attend UC Berkeley, but left the school because he felt there was too much emphasis on his athletic abilities and not enough encouragement for him to excel academically. He returned to Los Angeles, graduating with a B.A. degree in Psychology from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

“It was the best decision I made. I felt I had much more personalized attention from the professors. I was really able to focus on my studies,” he says.

On a Mission took a group of kids deep-sea fishing. For some, it was the first time ever they had experienced fishing. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

After graduating, Henderson worked with the homeless on Skid Row as a case manager at the Weingart Center. He also worked with parolees, families in need and mental health patients.

“I saw many men in their 50’s and 60’s get out of prison, not know what to do with their lives, use drugs again and go back to prison,” recalls Henderson. “I knew that if I wanted to make a difference, I needed to work with young kids.”

He founded On a Mission (O.A.M) in December 2003, but unable to secure sufficient grants to keep his initial programs going, had to put his youth programs on hold. He took a job as a manager at American Airlines, where he spent five years. He even worked at FedEx as a forklift driver.

“While at FedEx, I started working with the Hawthorne police department youth program. I knew I really wanted to work with kids. There’s a lot of negativity in this community and I wanted to change that,” says Henderson.

He was able to get funding thanks to a few solid sponsors like Home Depot and Southern California Edison, and in 2010 was able to restart his non-profit. This time, Henderson’s efforts have been so successful, that the center’s offices are now too small and he’s looking to move to a bigger location when the lease expires in December of 2012.

On a Mission headquarters on W. Vernon Ave. in South LA. (Photo: Veronica Villafañe)

“Our mission is to teach kids life skills that the school isn’t teaching them. We want to bring them awareness, build their self esteem, self respect and teach them to respect others,” states Henderson. “We have 14 and 15 year-olds getting girls pregnant, but they don’t have any skills to get gainful employment. We have to change all of that.”

On a Mission’s signature program is called “Boys to Men,” geared at 12 to 17 year old males. During the first part of the eight week mentoring and behavior modification program, the instructors talk about gangs and its consequences. After addressing that issue, the lectures cover topics that will help the kids in the future.

The boys learn basic life skills like how to get an email account, how to open a bank account, prepare a resumé, how to dress and prepare for a job interview – even how to tie a tie. They’re also taught how to set goals and to think about different career options.

Edwin Henderson (left) receives a check from Black Celebrity Giving, which named On a Mission non-profit of the year. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

“The kids enjoy the program. There are guest speakers and they learn something new every week. We try not to make it like school. We also talk about girls, dating, date rape and violence. We help them understand what’s right from wrong,” explains Henderson.

On a Mission also works with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Jeopardy Program, which targets at-risk youth. They have also partnered with View Park Middle School, where they focus on pregnancy prevention for both boys and girls.

As part of his self-esteem and leadership training efforts, Henderson takes kids on field trips. Last year, a group visited Washington, D.C. This year, another group went to Sacramento. In June, he’ll be taking at risk youths on a “scared straight” trip to San Quentin.

“Now is the time to make a positive difference with these kids – before it’s too late.”

Due to the effectiveness of On a Mission’s Boys to Men program, they get referrals from LAPD, the court, probation officers and even parents themselves.

Edwin Henderson (left) with a group of On a Mission kids. (Courtesy of On a Mission)

In January, Henderson received the Black Celebrity Giving award for non-profit of the year. But he’s determined to do more.

“I’d like to get a van to go pick up kids in places that are further away, that can’t make it here without public transportation…. My vision is to someday have our own facility, with a basketball court and pool, where we can provide a safe place for the kids,” he says.

Henderson is a firm believer of his mission statement: “What good is a man that becomes successful, but does not give back to his community? The purpose of On A Mission is not only to teach youth to become successful in life, but to also empower their community, and uplift those around them. Youth that pass through our program will become better sons, better brothers, better men, and one day better fathers. We are young, we are leaders, we are ON A MISSION.”

On a Mission is located at 3031 W. Vernon Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90008.
Office number: 323.298.4779