By Shirley Hawkins
Edwin L. Henderson vividly remembers growing up in his gritty South L.A. neighborhood where survival was a day-to-day occurrence.
“There were drugs, gang banging, poverty and prostitution,” recalls Henderson. “Kids were failing and dropping out of school. I knew there was a dire need in my neighborhood for a program to provide youths with an alternative to the streets.”
As Henderson carved a career in corporate America and later toiled away at several nonprofits, he never forgot the youths in his old neighborhood. Determined to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth, Henderson struck out on his own to start On a Mission, Inc., an after-school program, 10 years ago.
Today, On a Mission, Inc., whose motto is “Investing in Today’s Youth,” offers young people 12 to 17 a safe haven from the gritty streets outside where they can learn, laugh, and have fun. “Most of the youths come from single family homes,” Henderson revealed. “We have a number of volunteers who work with the children. I think having strong, male figures in their lives makes a difference.”
Each day after school, kids tumble into the non-profit’s offices buzzing with excitement. “This year, we served 350 kids,” Henderson said proudly, adding that On a Mission, Inc. also offers eight programs that focus on fostering self-development and self-esteem.
“Our Boys to Men eight-week program teaches young men about life skills, STD’s, gang intervention and drug intervention. They also learn about goal setting and how to invest and how to open and manage a bank account,” Henderson said. “We also have a program called Leading Ladies, an eight-week life skills program that is taught by our program director, Tiffany Moore. The girls learn about etiquette, self-esteem, goal setting, health and fitness, and how to recognize dangerous relationships.”
Henderson said that On a Mission, Inc. regularly invites guest speakers to talk to the youths about different career paths. “I found out that most of the kids only want to be athletes or rappers—I wanted to show them that there are o many other occupations they can pursue,” said Henderson. “We’ve had lawyers, doctors, firefighters, judges, musicians and actors and even members of the UCLA football team come by to talk to the kids. The kids love meeting people from different professions.”
Henderson said that On a Mission, Inc. also takes the youths on field trips so that they can be exposed to new experiences. “We’ve taken the kids deep sea fishing and on field trips to Catalina Island where they learn about oceanography,” said Henderson. “We also take the kids to Sacramento, the state capitol, so that they can learn how the government works. We also take the kids on a VIP tour of the White House every March, where they visit the Pentagon, the Capital Building, the MLK Memorial and other historical landmarks. The trip makes it possible for kids to dream and know that all things are possible through hard work.”
On a Mission Inc. also sponsors the San Quentin Youth Prison Experience, in which the organization partners with the LAPD Jeopardy program to take the youths on an annual trip to San Quentin prison. Youths pass through security gates, visit prison cells and come face-to-face with inmates. “The prisoners talk to the kids about what it feels like to be behind bars,” Henderson said.
He added that many of the youths come away profoundly affected after interacting with the inmates. “There was one young man who has been with On a Mission since he was 12 years old but he got caught up in gangbanging,” recalls Henderson. “After he returned home from the prison trip, he realized that he didn’t want to gangbang anymore. He now attends El Camino College majoring in business and he works with us as a camp counselor during the summer.”
On a Mission, Inc., which was voted the ”2012 Non-Profit of the Year” by Black Celebrity Giving, is in the midst of implementing a music program within the next few weeks that will be taught by volunteer and musician Alwaz Carey. “I’m excited,” said Carey. “The music program will focus on the business, production and recording of music. We’ll focus on the ingredients it takes to make a hit record.”
Carey said he enjoys volunteering at the center. “I love the kids because we’re investing in today’s youth. They are our future,” he said.
Despite helping to transform young lives, On a Mission, Inc. depends on grants and in-kind donations to keep its doors open. The organization is in need a 12- to 16-passenger van to transport youths from the facility to their homes and on field trips.
Henderson hopes to expand the program to reach more young people across the country. “I hope that On a Mission, Inc. will become a nationally recognized organization,” he reflected. “I would like to establish the program in cities such as Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, and New Orleans.”
Henderson said there is nothing more fulfilling than reaching out to at-risk youths and helping to transform young lives. “I love working with the kids,” he said, nodding. “I love opening their eyes to different careers and exposing them to things that they didn’t know existed—it’s an awesome feeling.”
On a Mission, Inc.’s website can be accessed at www.joinoam.org or call (323) 298-4779.