Sunday School wasn’t about learning for Myles Stowers when he was a kid.
“We’d be at Six Flags fighting with each other,” said Stowers, 18, recalling field trips his class took.
It gave Austin youth a positive place to be, but Stowers said teachers wouldn’t make the lessons – which were mostly faith based – interesting, so kids quickly lost interest.
That’s why Stowers was surprised recently when kids in the Mars Hill Baptist Church Youth Mentoring Program smiled as a speaker talked to them about religion. Stowers is the group’s sports and youth engagement coordinator.
That day, a majority of the kids voted the monthly meeting as their favorite event since they joined the group — over field trips to Cubs games and this summer’s Air and Water Show.
Frank Walker, coordinator for the program, said the group finds speakers who can get on the kids’ level, which he thinks is a reason they enjoyed it.
The talk a few Wednesdays ago was called “iWorship.” The speaker, Travis Edwards, the church’s director of fine arts and worship, explained why people come to church and “what’s in it for young people.”
Later, Walker said the kids broke into male and female groups to discuss whatever was on their minds or their monthly topics, like “Little Things Matter” or “Habits Are Powerful.”
Those groups are one of the reasons 15-year-old Jeleel Pickett, Walker’s mentee, likes this mentoring program.
“It’s like cool to have somebody else who comes out and tells you … what they think you should do about (your problems). I didn’t know anyone else understood what I was going through,” Jeleel said.
Anyone can join the group, which is primarily focused on building good character, Walker said.
Life can be hard for kids in Austin, who are no strangers to crime, Stowers said. He said if area kids are not actively involved in something, they’re more likely to join a faction, or a small group that uses violence to “control” a block.
“Any youth here is automatically hardened to crime because it’s at their doorstep,” Stowers said. “Now we can challenge that negative environment.”
The Mars Hill youth group was originally part of Austin Dream Makers, which united 10 Austin churches in March to start a youth group.
But Mars Hill Rev. Clarence Stowers – Myles Stowers’ father – wanted to reach out to kids in other areas, too, like Maywood.
Since its launch in August, over 100 people have joined the program – about 56 mentors and 50 kids. While 90 percent of the kids are from Austin, the remainder hails from Maywood, North Lawndale and Oak Park.
The group is gaining traction, with a long waiting list. But Walker said there isn’t enough money to let everyone in.
“Our funding is really standing in the way,” Walker said.
There is no fee to join the group or attend any of the field trips, he said. Each child receives a bag of school supplies, free tutoring sessions and a “one-year plan” for how mentors will help their kids make academic goals.
The group holds fundraisers, but there’s still not enough money to hold more after-school programs for the children, Walker said. He said he wants kids to be able to come to the program every day if they wanted. He’s working on getting corporate sponsorships.
Walker hopes to raise close to $10,000, which is “more than enough” to let in every child on the waiting list and develop new programs.
Pickett, on the other hand, said he’s just happy he can talk to Walker, who he calls “Frankie,” about things his parents wouldn’t understand.
“Frankie is like an older brother I never had,” Pickett said.