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Young men create mentoring program for high-school males through United Way’s Upstream

May 2, 2017

gentsforjaxBy Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

Originally posted in The Florida Times-Union

Farouk Smith and Vaughn Sayers are brothers with a purpose. They aren’t related – not actual brothers – but there is such positive continuity in their drive to be what Sayers describes as “agents of change” that they seem to be.

The two young men, students at the University of North Florida, were winners in United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream competition. The competition calls for young professionals to develop small start-up projects addressing social issues in our community.

Their project, Gents for Jax, will set up a mentoring program for male students at Sandalwood High School in the fall. Both young men needed to step in and be that role model, that father-figure in their own lives and the lives of their siblings, filling the void in a remarkable fashion.

Sayers has a picture of himself holding his swaddled, newborn brother in a tender embrace as the wallpaper on his phone. For him, it’s a reminder of all that is precious in the world and he gets emotional thinking about it.

“I was there when he was born,” Sayers said. “I got to cut the umbilical cord. I’ve always known that I wanted to help others, but the turning point was when he was born.” Sayers took on the lead supporting role for his mom.  For most of Sayers’ life, his father was missing from the picture.

“The first time I met my father, he was in prison,” Sayers said. “My mother loves her children fiercely and was the biggest role model.” When Sayers’s father was able to start a new life, mom and son decided to give him a second chance. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” Sayers said. “But then he abandoned us again, leaving my mom pregnant. I’m glad we gave him that chance though. If not, he would have been this mystical person, someone I always wondered about.” Sayers took care of the new baby when needed, while keeping up with his studies.

Smith learned to watch out for his brother while they stayed in the care of relatives. After winning a visa lottery to come to the United States from Africa, his father established a home for the family in the U.S., working 50 to 60 hours a week as a security guard for McDonald’s. It took two years before his father was able to bring his wife to the U.S. It took another two years before both boys could come, having stayed with other family members in the meantime.

Life on the streets of Chicago was a completely different experience.

“In Chicago, we’d walk two miles through the streets to get to the train station and go to school,” Smith said. “I learned my work ethic from my dad, and I learned that your situation isn’t an excuse not to better yourself.”

Wanting the best education for their children, Smith’s parents enrolled them in a private school far outside their Northwest Chicago neighborhood, but there wasn’t transportation to take them. Smith credits that time with teaching him discipline and purpose, of having an opportunity to make the most out of it even if getting there was frightening.

Smith and Sayers both believe their hardships made them better men, better able to handle the world. They want to help other young men find strength as well. “These kids know what works best for them,” Sayers said. “They know what works and what doesn’t.” They’ll work with and match the high-schoolers with mentors who can guide them in the right direction – that help them be their own “agents of change.”

If you would like to learn more about United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream initiative, visit unitedwaynefl.org/upstream.