This is YELLS (Youth Empowerment through Learning, Leading, and Serving, Inc.) These two individuals are selfless high school volunteers of the Marietta area in a suburb of Atlanta who take time out of their week to mentor elementary school students. The kid on the left is new to the mentor program, he used to be in the high school band. The girl on the right is a veteran to the program, her school’s valedictorian, and is planning on going to Georgia Tech in the fall.
This is me. An “adult” volunteer mentor to the high school students. I got this position in a weirdly interesting way. I was an English Education Major at Kennesaw State University. I wanted to teach teenagers English. Part of the requirements for EDUC 2100 was to perform 15 hours of community service from a collection of pre-approved facilities. I made a mistake applying to work with YELLS. I didn’t have the committable mindset to dedicate to mentoring students. I was not cut out for the gig. However, what I reflect on when I’m writing this wrestles me in my chair— these kids did more mentoring to me than I could ever supply them.
I received a call from a representative at YELLS who asked if I would like to work with the YELLS Mentor subsection of the facility. She talked it up, saying that I would be a great mentor and that the other sections of the facility do not need my assistance as much. I was reluctantly sold. I kept saying in the back of my head, “This will look great on your résumé, bud.”
My first day as an adult mentor was the most awkward situation I can account for, especially in the last year. As a side note: I used to be a youth minister for my local church. So I figured the best way to address these students was to act like I did as a minister. That was unsuccessful. These kids were different. They had a passion that was not matched by a Sunday school get-together. These kids had stories, backgrounds that soared high above the minimal incidents that threw parishioners over the edge of sanity. I wasn’t prepared for this.
At 3:45 I showed up to the YELLS off base mentor facility. They were “renting” the recreational room at a local non-denominational church. When I walked into the room, all eyes turned, shifted and centered on me— the only white guy. You see, I was and still remain the only white person to be involved in this program. So my immediate acceptance from the students and the elementary school students was tested. I was guided around the meeting space by the woman who interviewed me, and then like a mother letting her son walk on the school bus alone, she watched from a distance me trying to interact with complete strangers. The first student I tried “mentoring” was an elementary school kid. She was not doing well in math (I hate math), her homework was simple addition and subtraction. So I sat down and tried sparking a conversation with her about how the day was and general questions that entice small talk.
You can’t small talk a child. I learned that that first day. Small talking a child is a snowball effect. It never ends. They leach onto you and begin to spill the beans on every single thing that comes to their mind. It is its own form of beauty. The simplicity and honesty that spews from a child’s mouth is just unmatched.
Needless to say, I had to work the trust especially of the high school students and the employees of YELLS. A few weeks into the program, we had several volunteers from the local area of Franklin Gateway come to our YELLS meetups to discuss various ways they help the community. I was tasked to chaperone a handful of high schoolers as they went into different rooms to hear the spokesmen. At our second stop, we sat at a table with a Marietta police officer. I had already heard grudging remarks from the students about sitting face to face with a police officer— an “enemy” to these students. As we sat down, the white police officer reached out a shook everyone’s hand and introduced himself. He started to discuss the crime rates of the area and his mission to help revitalize the area. He spoke about how he doesn’t like to hand out tickets to kids for doing “regular kid stuff.” It was at this moment, one of the girls I have grown to care about spoke up, or more like interrupted the officer’s monologue. “I was robbed right there,” as she gestures to the other side of the street from our facility. I immediately turned to her in shock and concern, but it was evident that I was returning to old minister traits. I felt I needed to do something for the student. I needed to protect her.
Late that night, after coming home and digesting all that occurred, I became overwhelmed with respect for these students and this program. The adversity and perseverance of this community just struck me with such awe and adoration that it only made me more eager to volunteer at any moment I could. It came to be known that that day was supposed to encourage and inspire the students with the nonprofit projects that were to be finished by the end of the year. I was assigned to the more predominately male group who chose to create and conduct a soccer tournament within the community to help bring unity and to suppress the violence seen daily on Franklin Gateway.
Pictured on the left side are two of a collection of students that organized and managed the entire soccer outreach program. Countless hours spent coordinating this event and countless retyping of proposal letters to sponsors and investors for the ultimate success of a nonprofit event. The preparation for this end of the year project was truly the most inspiring thing these kids ever did as a collective.
Every first Saturday of the month they got together for 4 hours to discuss and pick up where they left off in the planning process. They would propose ideas to one another and bounce off suggestions back and forth. However, what really got me was how little I was needed. Yeah, I understand that I should not be selfish and narcissistic in my attitude, but I felt like I would be required more. And that is what is most amazing about these kids— they took on the challenge of coordinating an entire nonprofit event with little to no supervision from an “adult.”
It solidified during this event ( but was growing throughout the year) the relationship the students had with me. They started telling me things about their lives that isn’t shareable with a stranger. Things that kept me up at night worrying, things that I would wonder how they could possibly be dealing with on their own. The kid that was sitting down in that photo has found me to be his go-to third-party adult for advice on everything under the sun. Instead of focusing primarily on their faith journey, like I would as a minister, I instead address their morality and their mental health. I being every conversation now with how are they doing, how is their health, and how are their grades.
Grades are a tremendously important topic with the YELLS mentor students. To be a YELLS mentor student, you must maintain a good GPA. The facilitators do not want mentors who are not doing well in school mentoring elementary school kids. Makes sense. So I would go around every Tuesday and ask, “hows the grades this week?” At first, the responses were subpar, “oh, I am not doing the best in math,” or “yeah, don’t ask Mr. Cameron.” However, I started noticing something significant towards the middle of the year— they started to eagerly tell me their successes in school. “Mr. Cameron, I just aced my history test!” I would hear this and be attacked with high fives while I walked in 10 minutes late. Furthermore, with several students graduating high school soon, every time a student announces they have been accepted into college we all celebrate. A huge congratulations are bestowed on that individual with an entire room full of supportive friends surrounding them.
Besides promoting a well-defined GPA in school, YELLS promotes student camaraderie. On one specific Tuesday afternoon, we were given access to the Marietta Ice Center to learn the sport of curling. All the students, both high school and elementary, were ecstatic with this opportunity to try something new, but most of all to hang out with their friends somewhere other than on Franklin Gateway. The owners of Marietta Ice Center offered training and ice time for free and included lunch for all of us. It was a great way to build a bond between the entirety of YELLS from student to mentor to employee. We all were slipping and falling, no one was an expert, and that is what made it great. Everyone was equally receiving bruises from the stone cold ice in the middle of spring.
Everything YELLS does is for the betterment of the students and community of Franklin Gateway. This past summer YELLS went to Camp Blue Ridge for the annual summer team building retreat. I had never been on this until now so I quickly volunteered for a position as a chaperone. I was told there weren’t any spots available, but maybe one will come available closer to the date. The night before they were leaving, I received a call from the YELLS mentor division’s head leader, Imani Crosby, who informed me that there was a spot open for me and that I should come. I immediately opened my schedule and hopped on the bus for Camp Blue Ridge.
It was unknown to me the logistics of this operation. Was it just YELLS mentor students, or was it YELLS entirety? I started noticing while we were preparing to leave that it was all YELLS high school students from both divisions (mentor and cafe). The idea was to build, not just individual group cohesion, but universal YELLS unity.
That is a traditional ceremony for the students. They must walk through the gunk if they wish to go to camp. They have to go through the “dirt” of their lives and rid themselves of worry if they want to gain anything from the retreat. I found it tremendously shocking the friendships that crossed the divisional boundary of YELLS. There were students from the cafe sections mingling with the mentor crew as if they were just one big community. You could tell the friendships had deeper seeds than solely being from YELLS.
The YELLS leadership developed an action-packed weekend consisting of different workshops to help the students develop various life skills. These workshops included generating a list of values and goals that the students can use to plan a future. We split into mentor and cafe groups and went to various areas of the camp. In the above picture, we are in one of the cabins. The kids were creating flowcharts of their personal goals that they feel hold value to them personally. It was so surreal seeing these students working earnestly and individually on this project. All conversation ceased. All noise diminished except for the smooth melodies coming from someone’s bluetooth speaker in the corner.
“By any means necessary,” a game requiring players to move water from one bucket to the next with whatever they have on them at that specific time. My group, specifically two individuals, decided to use a shirt and a pair of exclusive Vans sneakers to move the water quicker.
These two teenagers sacrificed their well being for the greater of the group, and the inevitable win over the other groups. The Red Squad consisted of a few kids from both groups (mentor and cafe). One student, in particular, amazed me by her attitude change from day one to the final day. She began by complaining about the color of the group. She grew up in a Crip family, and so red was considered a betrayal. To see her put her differences aside and be involved in the various activities was incredibly inspiring.
During the yearly retreat, I received an award from the girl who offered her shoes up for our game. It was honestly a very humbling thing. She got in front of everyone and proclaimed that I deserved recognition. That in its own is such an inspiring leap. As I stated earlier, she was not from the mentor crew; she belonged to the cafe kids. So to receive an award from someone, I did not know before the first day of the retreat was just the best.
Another student, but this time from the mentor group awarded me with a similar medal. He was new to the mentor group, but his involvement was nothing short of a veteran to the program. Besides this public adoration he gave, he has been recorded to have said similar things about me on later occasions. Just the fact that a student feels inspired to speak vulnerably about someone else in a world where showing your alpha side is normal is wonderful.
What YELLS does for these teenagers will last them a lifetime. The values they distill onto the youth of Franklin Gateway is unmatched. The community that is built in such a diverse area is not an easy task, but with the help of devoted staff and committed natives of Franklin Gateway, this has become a reality. People from all walks of life and backgrounds coming together to be together, enjoying life, and being themselves and being vulnerable.
My experience with YELLS is not at a closing, rather a beginning. I am onto my second year with these incredible kids. New nonprofit projects await us. New connections waiting to develop. New personalities to discover. Recently, the mentor teenagers were tasked to conduct face to face consultations with essential business people of the local Marietta area. Several of the students were nervous and didn’t know how to properly address these individuals.
Ms. Crosby, the leader of the mentor division, created a workshop to help the teenagers develop different techniques in conducting a business conversation, and these kids killed it. They all gained valuable experience, behaving professional, and orchestrating flawless proposals to white-collar people.
I’m so glad my selfish mind was motivating me to promise a year of my time to these high school mentors. The lessons they have taught me, the values they have bestowed on me surpasses that of which I could ever provide them.
The YELLS community is active, the YELLS community is unmatched, and the YELLS community is here to stay.