ATLANTIC CITY — A few weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of keeping children involved in Atlantic City’s many youth programs. Well, meet A.C. Youth Exposure — one of the new kids on the block. The program's first year ends with the children going on a trip to Washington, D.C. I tried to catch up with this lively bunch of middle schoolers and their mentors a few weeks ago, but they were all playing basketball with former Harlem Globetrotters. Afterwards, they were heading over to Yoga Nine in Smithville for an introductory yoga session.
This past Saturday, I found them at their usual spot: the PAL building in Atlantic City. There I asked the participants what they liked most about A.C. Youth Exposure.
The children hardly noticed when I entered the room, because they were huddled over beautifully colored maps of Asia, Spain and the Caribbean. Natalie Devonish, the president, informed me that it was a “cultural awareness day.”
The aroma of Jamaican jerk chicken, warming in the back of the room, made me hungry, but there was also sushi available to represent parts of Asia, collard greens to represent African-American tradition and beans and rice to represent Spanish-influenced countries.
“Better not be no pork over there,” I heard one boy announce, laughing.
I was impressed by the group of 20-somethings, four women and one man, working with the boys and girls as they raced to finish puzzles after their map activity. I imagined these young professionals as great parents in the future as I watched them very firmly yet pleasantly dealing with 13 students when they could have easily been at home catching up on some sleep this Saturday morning.
Usually, they’d have a group of 23, but some students were attending the funeral of Mr. Jennings, the young local teacher who died recently in his sleep, but who had taught many of these students at New York Avenue School or Martin Luther King, Jr., School in Atlantic City.
The mentors said they had to change their usual curriculum earlier to include some grief counseling, but that’s part of what they expect.
A.C. Youth Exposure has a curriculum that includes everything from mentoring, tutoring, job and scholarship counseling, college and career exploration, to field trips. Modeled after the five-year-old Youth Exposure program in Plainfield, N.J., it is designed for students in grades 5th through 8th, a group sometimes overlooked by other programs.
Everything A.C. Youth Exposure offers is meant to help at-risk, inner-city youth become successful in life, because these mentors were once exactly where they are today, largely single-parent children growing up in the "other Atlantic City.” After graduating from college and returning to work in this area, they wanted to give back to their community what others had done for them.
They describe their program as “a safety net for children who desire to reach their full potential by providing a locally-based network of mentors and like-minded peers.”
“Whoop! We won!” a shout when up as one group completed its puzzle. That meant it was almost time to eat lunch, which usually would have been pizza, but today, the mentors had reached into their own pockets to pay for a multi-cultural meal. During that time, I asked students what they liked most and least about A.C. Youth Exposure.
“I don’t have to be in the house bored on Saturday mornings, and I like how they take time out to be with us when they could be doing something else,” said a 14-year-old boy. “Is there anything you don’t like?” I asked. “Oh no, we’ve been to Stockton, we’ve been horseback riding, we went to yoga. That was hard,” he answered.
“The trips, that’s what I like most,” said the next respondent, another 14-year-old boy grinning from ear to ear. “After 14, I can be a junior mentor, maybe. I think I want to do that.”
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Black History, Jazz and Poetry