Adults rescuing young lives

January 25, 1995|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

You can see it in Kent Sanders' eyes and you can hear it in his voice.

His commitment to making a difference in the lives of inner city children is evident whenever he talks about Youths United for Success. YUFS is a tutorial and self-esteem program in West Baltimore that has survived six years without receiving a dime from anyone other than the volunteers who run it.

"When you are around these kids and you see the gleam in their eyes because they realize someone loves and cares for them and is going to be there for them, it's just like having your own child. You will do anything to see that gleam in their eyes all the time," he said.

It was April 1989 when Mr. Sanders and two co-workers at Crossroads Convenience Store at Pennsylvania and Fulton avenues decided they'd had enough of noisy kids coming into the place every day.

The teen-agers never bought anything, while harassing both clerks and customers.

Mr. Sanders was the store manager, but he didn't call the police. Nor did he declare the store off limits to young people. Instead, he and and co-workers Harriet Gaither and Willie Long decided to talk to the troublemakers.

"Kent would find out where they live, what grade they were in, whether they were in school," Ms. Gaither said. "And a lot of times just talking to them would calm them down. And the next time they would come in the store they might not be as rowdy."

Those conversations persuaded the convenience store employees that the neighborhood children needed a program that would not only help them stay in school but also make them believe someone cared about their future.

So they started Youths United for Success.

Six years later the convenience store is gone, but YUFS is running strong, just a couple of blocks away at the Parkview Recreation Center in the 2600 block of Francis St. Mr. Sanders said he wants the program to survive without any financial help from agencies or individuals other than the volunteers who act as tutors and counselors.

"Children have seen so many programs fold because of lack of funding. They don't understand when they're told because I don't have money I don't have time for you.

"If this program folds it will be because I and the other advisers don't want to participate anymore, and that's not going to happen," said Mr. Sanders.

About 40 children, mostly ages 5 to 12, participate in YUFS. They meet for two hours every Monday and Thursday evening at the recreation center. They do their homework and have it checked, play games, learn proper etiquette and are provided lessons to build self-esteem.

Ms. Gaither, 31, who is now an insurance adjuster, said it wasn't too difficult getting YUFS started once the idea had been hatched. A detailed proposal was made to recreation center director Sylvia Lynn, who was told all the center needed to provide was the space.

"Then we had to spread the word," Ms. Gaither said. "We had some of the bigger kids who would come into the store creating problems passing out fliers in the neighborhood. We went door to door as well.

"There were over 50 kids to show up that first night."

Since then, keeping teen-agers involved in YUFS has been a struggle.

"We try to mold them into being role models for the younger kids, but it's hard for them to stay interested, focused and dedicated," Ms. Gaither said.

"We do provide activities for them, it's just that it's real hard to compete with all the other forces that are out there."

Ms. Gaither said YUFS did have some teen participants who were providing positive inspiration to younger children.

Among them is Antonio Hayes, 17, a senior at Walbook High School who is planning to major in engineering in college after he graduates in June.

The Hayes youth says he was one of the kids who was always in trouble before he started coming to the YUFS sessions five years ago. He said he easily could have ended up like his friends.

"All the crowd I used to hang with is either selling drugs or in jail," he said.

"If I weren't in YUFS, that could have been me. But I have positive goals now, and one thing Kent taught me is whatever you want in life you can get. I realize I have a voice in society. I can talk to people and they will listen," said Mr. Hayes.

Mr. Sanders, 30, who now works for the Internal Revenue Service, said he hasn't given up on getting more teen-agers involved with YUFS. He said he still hopes teen-agers will be attracted to the program when they see how much it helps their younger brothers and sisters.

"We've had every kid in this neighborhood come to this program, but, unfortunately, when they get to the junior high level the peer pressure is just enormous," he said. "It's no good getting the little kids if we lose them once they reach junior high."

Mr. Hayes said YUFS could get more teen-agers involved if it offered weight training or sports that appealed to older kids. He said he tries to recruit other teen-agers into YUFS. "If I see someone else slipping, I try to help them because Kent did it for me," he said.

Ms. Gaither said getting parents involved is almost as big a challenge as getting more teen-agers to attend YUFS sessions.

"We do get some parent participation, but not as much as we would like," she said. "If there are some concerns about what is happening in a child's home, we may take that child home and talk directly with the parents about the problem."

Mr. Sanders said whatever shortcomings or setbacks may affect YUFS, he is not about to let anything keep him from showing up for the children.

"I've had an extremely blessed life," he said. "My father has always been there for me; my family has always been there for me. I'm just so blessed it's ridiculous, and I have to give that back because I don't deserve all that if I don't give some back."

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