Mentor2Youth seeks to expand Raising Royalty mentorship program after successful launch

Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Mentor2Youth (M2Y) recently received funding to provide mentorship and character-building programming to middle school boys, and staff are hoping to extend that programming to middle school girls as well.

M2Y was able to offer its Raising Royalty workshop to middle school boys due to funding from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation's EmpowerMENt Fund, a $1 million fund established by an anonymous donor to support Black men and boys in Washtenaw County.

When M2Y Executive Director Darryl Johnson spoke to Ypsilanti Community Middle School Principal Turquoise Neal about the funding, she wanted to know: What about the girls? Neal says the transition back to in-person school this fall has been tricky.

Turquoise Neal.
"It's been hard with managing social relationships, really making friends, and getting back into the groove of school," Neal says. "We know the girls need just as much support, guidance, direction, and mentoring. An opportunity to provide the same for the girls would be amazing."

M2Y's Raising Royalty program engages a variety of community collaborators collectively operating under the name "Young Men of Purpose," including Ypsilanti Community Schools, Washtenaw Community College (WCC), Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper (WMBK), and Christian Love Fellowship Ministries International. WCC provides some career programming for eighth-graders on Saturdays at Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti, while Jamall Bufford of WMBK runs a community circle with the Raising Royalty youth one day a week. WMBK also received EmpowerMENt funds, which it uses for a middle school boys' club that prepares young men for high school.

The Raising Royalty program uses the game of chess to illustrate ways young people can think like winners and gain mastery of life skills.

"We work with young people and are able to create this paradigm of character development," Johnson says. "Community and social aspects are all different components that need to be brought together the way a chess board works. Each piece has different characteristics, strategy, and decision-making."

Johnson says chess requires thinking many steps ahead, and he wants young people in the Raising Royalty program to "be able to look further down into their future" in the same way a chess player thinks about the long game.

The program served about 10 "young kings" over the summer, but Johnson says he'd like to hire six more part-time staff to expand the number of young men served to 90. If the organization can find the funds, ideally between $20,000-50,000, he'd like to expand the program to serve 90 "young queens" as well.

"Mentor2Youth is committed to making that money happen," Johnson says. "It's not right to just have it for the boys, because girls are in just as bad a shape. Even if we figure out a way to save our boys, half our community is still in peril."

Neal says middle school boys and girls have a lot of the same challenges and needs, but the struggle "shows up different for girls."

"We see them navigating peer relationships, and the girls tend to talk more about when there are challenges or they're afraid," Neal says. 

She says these girls haven't had the ability to build school friendships the traditional way during the pandemic, and that shows in their interactions now that they're back to in-person classes.

"It's been all online, so they've only had the friendships that already existed outside of school," Neal says. "Now as they're coming into school and trying to navigate making friends, we're seeing they're not as skilled."

On the flip side, she says boys are less likely to talk about their feelings. It's important, she says, to work on self-image, self-esteem, and restoring community with both boys and girls.

Johnson says Raising Royalty seeks to help young people identify and embody their values, rather than focusing on personality and social media. 

"We teach them the six pillars of character, and talk about mission, values, and stewardship," Johnson says. "They first start out and play chess, and see the components have different abilities and aren't all the same. We're able to speak to the kids about the [components] of their character through the chess pieces."

Neal calls middle school "such a critical age."

"They are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be," she says. 

She notes that looking to peers for guidance is natural but not always the wisest idea. 

"If we miss this opportunity to plant those seeds now when they're most moldable, they'll enter high school without a plan," she says. "We want them to leave middle school with some sense of a plan, to think about who they are and what they want to be and how they can be more successful."

Johnson says anyone who would like to support expanding the program to serve middle school girls may earmark a donation to M2Y for "Young Queens."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Darryl Johnson photo by Sarah Rigg. Turquoise Neal photo by Doug Coombe.