This group cultivates skills for young men while building a local network of support
Last month, 13 adolescent boys with Servant Partners in Richmond, Virginia visited a camp in Pennsylvania. Tyler, a 15-year-old participant, expressed he wanted to stay and work at the camp, as they employed high school students to work in their kitchen. After clearing the idea with his family and the camp staff, he stayed back and joined the kitchen staff.
"I liked meeting new people and hearing their stories about how they came to know God,” Tyler said. “I also learned different things about how to run a kitchen; I learned how to think more about the people I am going to feed, than to think about myself."
“I thought it was so courageous,” said Murray Withrow, the Servant Partners site leader in Richmond. “We talk with the young men about different stages of life, and as they approach the end of high school, it’s a time where we encourage them to look more toward young adulthood and adultlike responsibilities, including forms of employment. Tyler took that to heart, and he’s now modeling to the other guys what it looks like.”
Murray leads the Young Men’s Academy, a group of young men from middle through high school, who gather to study the Bible, enjoy recreational activities, and bond. In their latter years of high school, they shift their focus to getting a driver’s license, finding employment, and building their resumes.
“We don’t want them to feel like they need to grow up fast, because some of them have had to due to challenging life circumstances,” Murray said. “At the same time, we don’t want them to graduate from high school and be unprepared for adulthood. Something clicked for Tyler, sooner than later, and that’s a huge encouragement to us.”
“Adulting is challenging, no matter your background, but for our guys—mostly young Black men from a low-income community—those obstacles are only increased or multiplied in many ways,” Murray said. “Life post-high school is a pretty tumultuous time, and there’s not a tremendous success rate for transitioning into something that’s productive and helps them flourish.”
For these young men, many of their peers struggle to make this transition, with some even being incarcerated, involved in crime, or ending up deceased. As young adults, they don’t have a safety net to help them thrive.
“Graduating high school is rightly celebrated,” Murray said. “But if you can graduate and know how to hold down a job and have social skills, I think it’s a tremendous sign of growth.”
Three times a year, the group engages in a program called Camp Excel. The guys rotate through three different skill areas: cooking, woodworking, and health and wellness. When two of the boys had to move homes and needed new furnishings, the group decided to build a few beds for them through the woodworking class.
“They are learning the skills, but they are also building their network of people they know. The fitness instructor lives in their community, and is accessible to them,” Murray said. “These people will go to bat for them in a variety of settings, which will become very important for them as they grow into adulthood.” One of Murray’s summer staff met an instructor through this program and now works for him.
Not only do the young men practice valuable skills, but the SP Richmond team is intentional about having a significant representation of Black leaders—people that reflect their own communities.
“As our student population is almost all Black, we work to find Black men and women with certain expertise, knowledge, and skills to teach these things,” Murray said. “Our students are extremely receptive to learning from all sorts of people, but there’s something to be said about connecting with people that look like them—to know chefs and business owners who are men and women, Black and White. We want it to be normal to see people like themselves in different facets of life.”
“Adulting is challenging, no matter your background, but for our guys—mostly young Black men from a low-income community—those obstacles are only increased or multiplied in many ways.Life post-high school is a pretty tumultuous time, and there’s not a tremendous success rate for transitioning into something that’s productive and helps them flourish.”
The camp’s four summer staff are all also from urban communities, three are from the East End of Richmond, and one is a former Young Men’s Academy participant.
“I think those four are a very tangible picture of what God is up to. We teach and mentor boys to achieve the skills, character, and experience of young men who follow Christ. Those four young men intentionally chose to work with us this summer to invest in the younger boys from a gospel perspective.” Together, they mentored, discipled, led Bible studies and prayer, and shared the gospel with the boys.
After years of praying to have young men from the community return, remain, and invest back into the community, these young men were God’s answer to Murray. “God said, ‘I hear you and see you.’ It shows that God is faithful to His promises, to provide people and bring them into the fold that He has in mind.”
You can learn more about Servant Partners Richmond at www.servantpartners.org/richmond.