Inside a business center in central Fresno, several children played inside makeshift tents, singing campfire songs and giggling on a summer morning. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, the Boys 2 Men Girls 2 Women Foundation kept kids off the streets and engaged this summer, which executive director Joseph Perry says is crucial to making sure they stay in school during the year.
Amaya Howard, 11, says her favorite part of the eight-week program was meeting new people and learning new skills. If she wasn’t having fun in the program, Amaya said she’d be watching TV or playing on her tablet at home. “This is probably better,” she says.
Perry, the program’s founder, couldn’t agree more.
In an area with one of the highest teen pregnancy and high school drop-out rates in the state, taking nearly three months of summer off is detrimental to learning, especially for kids who are already in danger of not making it past ninth grade, Perry said.
“A lot of parents during the summertime allow kids to watch TV and swim,” he said. “Compare that with Child B who is taking advantage of summer hours” to keep learning. Perry said not wasting a summer could be what set the younger Bill Gates or Steve Jobs apart from the rest. Still, he knows it’s hard to get kids to agree not to take the summer off. “We’re competing with Xbox and Nickelodeon,” he said.
A dozen children from kindergartners to 12-year-olds took part in the program, though anyone up to age 18 was welcome. In the program, which ended Thursday, kids like Amaya learned life skills such as how to cook, measure and build a tent.
Fresno State student Mai Xiong helped plan the summer camp this year along with several other students. “The first few weeks was about a lot of planning and research for the camp,” she said. “Afterward was facilitating the camp – how to bake and cook, outside sports and swimming, interactive arts and crafts and creative writing. We tried our best to encourage fun,” Xiong said.
Volunteering boosted her leadership skills, so she hopes to become a mentor in fall when the Boys 2 Men Girls 2 Women Foundation begins to seek out children who would benefit the most from having a college student mentor.
They don’t need another teacher. They have that. Kids don’t care how much you know until they first know how much you care.
Joseph Perry, executive director of Boy 2 Men Girls 2 Women
The foundation works with the Fresno Unified School District during the year to find kids who are “falling through the cracks.” Perry says the problem with children not doing well in school isn’t an inability to learn, but their attitude toward it. “You can get a child who will take your phone and learn everything about how to use it. They don’t have a problem with learning. All those F’s are symptoms of other problems.”
The Boys 2 Men Girls 2 Women program runs year-round and has clubs at Fresno State, UCLA and soon, Perry says, UC Berkeley and Irvine. It runs on fundraisers and donations, and is always looking for volunteers.
Perry says mentors give kids a reason to care about themselves and motivation to do better. Although mentors can help with homework, “it’s not about academics,” Perry says. “They don’t need another teacher. They have that. Kids don’t care how much you know until they first know how much you care.”
The Boys 2 Men Girls 2 Women Foundation began in Fresno in 2001 when Perry realized that if someone had taken interest in him as a child, he could have fared better. While jailed for a traffic ticket, Perry met men who hadn’t necessarily committed a crime, but had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong people. “I learned compassion for those guys,” Perry explained. “I said, ‘you’re so smart, why are you here?’ ” He wanted to give kids someone to look up to.
Perry said he had a rough childhood. “No one invested in (me) as a kid. And I had two parents,” he said. “That happened to me with both parents. What about these kids?”
Perry said there’s a girl in the program who was dropped off every day by her social worker. She always makes sure to give him a hug and he hugs back, because he knows how hard it is to be young with no guidance. “Sometimes that’s the only hug she gets all week,” Perry said. “How much pressure is it to be a kid? Am I going to struggle to become an A student or am I gonna be cool? I had both parents, so imagine someone with no mother and no father. What choices does she have?”