Program gives mentors, hope to boys in west Atlanta

‘My main goal is to teach them self-worth’

It’s 3:20 p.m. and the lobby of Printpack in Vinings is suddenly abuzz with activity. Little boys with happy faces and backpacks scurry to the front desk to check in.

The students are members of the Phoenix Boys Association. They come here on Mondays after school to meet their mentors and gain exposure to the workplace. For the next hour, they will get homework help, snacks and lots of love.

The Phoenix Boys Association (PBA) provides Scouting, life skills and workplace mentoring to boys ages 7-18 living in some of Atlanta’s toughest neighborhoods. The nonprofit is one of six core groups receiving grants and assistance through Westside Momentum, a three-year initiative to improve neighborhoods on Atlanta’s west side. The effort was established by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation — which has supported PBA for years — in partnership with the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

The group will receive training, coaching and consulting that will help it serve more boys. The PBA is helping 175 boys but hopes to expand that to 300.

“Their biggest need is exposure,” said Lester Duncan, an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North who leads the Atlanta 5th Ward Boys Association. “All they see is what is in their communities. That’s not enough to get a kid to the next level, to get them to want to go to college, to be a productive citizen of society.”

The gang activity, fighting, gambling and cursing they see must be countered early and often with lessons in self-respect and sound decision-making. Mentoring relationships expose the boys to working professionals and trades. Club leaders constantly stress the importance of self-control, proper hygiene and doing well in school. They work with school officials to address students’ academic needs.

At a recent meeting, Duncan, along with volunteers from the church and partner businesses, talk with the boys about peer pressure and high-risk decision-making. One bad choice can lead to prison or death. Some boys have already had brushes with the law or faced school disciplinary tribunals.

The organization began more than 20 years ago as a Boy Scouts troop in the now-razed Bankhead Courts housing project. Bob Kent, then a volunteer, quickly realized Scouting wasn’t enough. He enlisted the help of business leaders like Dennis Love, chairman and CEO of Printpack.

“We looked around out there and saw a lot of need — a lot of poverty, big housing projects and a lot of young boys with not too many men around,” said Love. “We felt like a lot of them could get into trouble if nobody cared enough to steer them in the right direction.”

The companies provide financial assistance, job training and mentoring, said Kent, now executive director of PBA. “We are founded, financed and operated by Atlanta businesses who provide a framework within which men like Lester Duncan, Terrence Zachary and Lafreddie Smith can be effective with these boys.”

Duncan, Zachary and Smith work full time, picking up students from school and home, shuttling them to group meetings, workplaces and field trips several times a week. The boys are divided by age group.

“You only have one chance to make a first impression,” said Zachary, who leads the Hollywood Road chapter. “My main goal is to teach them self-worth.”

Once a shy kid, Zachary, 30, joined the Scout troop in Bankhead Courts, where his grandmother lived. The organization helped him become more outgoing and ultimately led him to learn a trade. He grew up in what is now known as Rolling Bends Apartments off Hollywood Road. Conditions for families in the 400-unit complex are far worse than he remembers.

“There are multiple siblings, single-parent homes. Sometimes both parents are there, but there is not adequate income, leaving the kids deprived of clothes, food and hygiene products,” he said. “I have had several parents tell me the boys have shown dramatic academic improvement.”

Fifteen-year-old Byron Williams credits PBA with his change in direction, as does his grandmother, Robin Williams. “Had you met him three years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to stand him.”

Now the 10th-grader at B.E.S.T. Academy High School is making good grades and sells candy before and after school for “spending change.” This summer, he will learn about computers. College is on the horizon.

“Before … I didn’t really care. I was constantly arguing and constantly using profanity toward adults,” said Byron. “I like to say that Mr. Terrence is my mentor. We can sit down and have a conversation. If I feel as if you came from the same situation or background that I came from, it’s a little easier to express the way I feel.”

Smith, another alumni of PBA, leads the group’s Fulton Industrial Boulevard chapter. He makes his charges run laps and do pushups to burn off energy before meetings and workplace activities.

“Sometimes you get frustrated or tired, but I’m here for them,” he said. “I have no other agenda but to give them the same experience that I had.”

Not every young man will go to college, which makes partnerships with businesses such as Cleveland Electric Co., Sanderson Industries Inc., Lathem, Moxie Interactive and Printpack so important. Some PBA alumni now work as electricians and plumbers.

For now, 8-year-old Makario Smith just wants to learn cursive writing so he can sign his own paycheck one day. Printpack employees Tim Parson and Raj Bhanot are ready to fill that need and more. Both men remember the importance of mentors in their own lives.

Parson, a quality engineer, said of his mentor: “He showed me how to be a young man, how to act in the community.”

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