Emmanuel Jones understands the importance of present role models. He describes his teenage self as "a borderline kid" who just needed a little push from the adults in his life, including his parents, to excel in school and in life.
"For me, having mentors in my life meant being able to always stay on track, because kids make mistakes, but if they have a support system, they’re able to bounce back," Jones says. "Those who don’t have a support system, when they make mistakes, that could be it and they don’t get to bounce back."
Jones sees himself in a lot of the kids he serves through his nonprofit, Mentor2Youth. He believes they want to succeed, but some of them lack the proper direction, resources, or support.
Jones founded Mentor2Youth, 317 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsi Township, in 2011 after volunteering and working on a research project for an online class at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr. in Ypsi. The research project focused on the effects of providing mentoring and tutoring to several middle and high school boys who were skipping class or getting bad grades. Jones helped the boys by offering academic workshops, homework assistance, and test and quiz prep, in addition to friendship fostered by a mentor-mentee relationship.
"In a lot of places ... it’s just the mentoring piece, but kids all still need (focus) on academics," Jones says. "Or sometimes you see kids getting tutored when really it’s not that they can’t excel in school. They just don’t have the mindset to. So providing both, what impact would that have?"
After two months, Jones saw a dramatic improvement not just in the boys' grades, but in their whole demeanor. He noticed that they were "more positive, more forward-thinking, and more goal-oriented." But when he stopped offering incentives and holding them accountable, the kids stopped showing up, and their grades and behavior started to revert to where they were before they received mentoring and tutoring.
"I had always been taught that it takes like a year to be able to see a change in a kid and if you can just help out one child or two kids during your lifetime, you’re doing an excellent job," Jones says. "But I was able to see that change in multiple kids in less than a couple months. So for me it let me know that was all me. I was the reason that they were improving and that they were growing. That really inspired me to start Mentor2Youth."
Mentor2Youth currently serves about 75 kids on average each year through its various programs. Its programs this summer included a reading and math program in partnership with the Family Learning Institute and a financial literacy program in partnership with Freedom Beyond Wealth, which were both offered during Parkridge Community Center’s summer camp. Mentor2Youth also offered a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workshop this summer at the Ypsilanti District Library in downtown Ypsi.
During the school year, the nonprofit will continue offering programming at the center and the library. It will also begin offering programming at Erickson Elementary, 1427 Levona St. in Ypsi Township, in the fall and at the former Chapelle Elementary building, 111 S. Wallace Blvd in Ypsi Township, in the winter.
Jones aims to serve at least 125 kids annually through Mentor2Youth. The nonprofit has expanded its focus on mentoring and tutoring to social and emotional development and college and career readiness. By 2022, he ultimately hopes to provide a school-to-career pipeline for disadvantaged youth in Washtenaw County by providing them with consistent wraparound services and support for five or more years.
"In five years, we’ll be able to show that all of our kids are academically in the top percentiles. If they are going to college, they actually have the means to afford college," Jones says. "If it’s not college, fine. Maybe it’s an apprenticeship. Maybe it’s a trade. Maybe it’s getting certified in some type of skill. Maybe it’s going to a technical school. But whatever it is, they know what they want to do."
Mentor2Youth intentionally reaches out to kids who live in low-income neighborhoods and who either lack access to resources or face barriers to participating in services. The organization serves neighborhoods such as the South Side in Ypsi and West Willow and Sugarbrook in Ypsi Township. Kids are recruited to the organization through outreach and networking, including referrals from school social workers or counselors and other nonprofits.
"The difference between Mentor2Youth and a lot of other organizations is that we actually go and seek out the kids, as opposed to expecting them to come to our facility," Jones says.
Shakira Johnson, 14, started participating in Mentor2Youth about five years ago when she lived across the street from Parkridge Community Center. Jones became one of her mentors and then her boss, as she's now employed as one of the organization's peer leaders.
"I’m very open to new experiences and I loved doing it before, just participating before I got the job," Shakira says. "Now I like helping the kids as a peer leader because of how much you get to help them. And then I realized all of the mentors that I had gained over the years with coming to Mentor2Youth, so that was really inspiring."
Shakira hopes she'll be able to serve as a mentor to other kids in the community. She also wants to help them have positive experiences with Mentor2Youth like she's had over the years.
Mentor2Youth volunteer Kevin Manieri initially got involved in the organization at Parkridge Community Center about four years ago through his church, Harvest Mission Community Church in Ann Arbor. Last school year he volunteered once a week as a mentor, but he thinks he might want to try being a tutor this school year.
"I think it’s just important to have good role models and good people to be able to look to, especially when you’re a kid and you’re growing and developing," Manieri says. "You just have questions about a bunch of different things. If you think about the ways that you learn how to behave and interact with society and the world, I think a lot of that is taught to you. So it’s helpful to have someone who, as a kid, that kid could look to and respect."
Manieri recently had the unique experience of introducing his own former mentor from his time growing up in New Jersey to two of the teenage boys he's interacted with at Parkridge Community Center. Manieri says he was flattered when the boys compared his relationship to his mentor to their relationship with him, and the four of them ended up going out for coffee and lunch.
"I told them that (Manieri's former mentor) used to take me out to eat and that he would tell me that I’d have to pay it forward later, so this was my chance to pay it forward," Manieri says, adding that he encouraged the boys to pay it forward when they get older by mentoring other kids themselves.
Programming for Mentor2Youth is funded by community partners and fundraisers. The nonprofit is launching its StandUp4Youth campaign in an effort to raise $100,000 so it can fulfill its goal of serving more kids every year. An annual fall gala, called Taste of Ypsi, will be held on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Ypsi. The event costs between $20 and $25 per person and features live music and samples from local restaurants and breweries. The organization will also hold an annual bowling tournament in the spring.
"We realize that working with 75 kids is great, but there are a lot more kids who need our support that aren’t currently getting the support here in the area," Jones says.
The organization is always looking for people who want to donate money, supplies, or time by mentoring, tutoring, helping out with events, or sitting on the board of directors. Those who are interested in supporting Mentor2Youth can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.