CAMDEN — B.O.S.S. Mentoring co-founder Yaniece Spencer, donning a red and charcoal Delta Sigma Theta cardigan, was balancing a keyboard on her lap on a recent night.
She was printing out a sign-in sheet. She paused to answer the phone. A mentee, who was being picked up by the program, was calling. She zipped out of the room to wish a parent a Happy New Year, and rushed back in because the other program’s founder, Rafiah Hickson, had just arrived.
After five frantic minutes, she took a deep breath. “This is normal,” she joked. “I'm always multi-tasking.”
As B.O.S.S. Mentoring — which stands for Boys of Sustainable Strength Mentoring — nears three years since its July 2017 launch, it’s clear that one thing you can’t question is the program organizers' dedication.
“We will pick up our kids if they need a ride and drop them off too. For a lot of them this may be their only outlet outside of school to actually engage with other kids,” Spencer told TAP into Camden, pausing to check the camera because another set of kids were arriving. “And many of them go to different schools, so it’s nice for them to see a different face.”
The free program, which connects Camden area boys with male mentors, meets every Monday evening at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church on 5th Street in downtown Camden. Other services offered by B.O.S.S include one-on-one sessions, group activities, college tours and field trips.
“I know them all by name,” Spencer said, pointing to the camera screen. “That’s Tyrell there.”
She continued, “They have a Google Voice number that connects to me directly and parents know they can reach out too. We partner our boys with male mentors because it’s the type of role model they need in their lives and can make such a big difference.”
Spencer checked the time.
Meatballs were baking.
“We also feed them a full meal every single week...not just pizza,” she added.
A set of ocean blue doors greet anyone that arrives to the church where the program is held.
The church has been owned by Spencer’s family since 1996, and is also where Pastor-Elect Aaron Spencer — Yaniece’s brother — will soon head the congregation.
B.O.S.S Mentoring spent the first year or so at KIPP Whittier Middle School before moving to the church.
It has extended its sessions from bi-weekly to weekly, and gone from nine mentees to nearly 30.
Three new mentees and one mentor started this past week.
Spencer hopes to expand the program's reach and add summer sessions, but said mentors have been hard to come by.
“That’s probably our biggest struggle,” she said. “It’s really hard to get mentors to come in and donate their time, which is understandable but really it’s what we need to keep adding kids."
This past Monday was the first time mentees were returning after winter break.
Thirteen-year-old Tyrell Chavis, — an aspiring NFL cornerback and Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson fan — has been with B.O.S.S. since it began.
“I’ve made many friends here,” Chavis said. “I also think [the program] helps me with interactions in school. I’ve learned it’s important to take a step back sometimes.”
One session at a time
Founders Hickson and Spencer, both Camden natives, grew up together and are both social workers.
Hickson, a certificate recipient of the Violence Against Women and Children program offered by Rutgers, works for the state juvenile justice system.
Spencer, who received her graduate degree in Criminal Justice from Saint Joseph's University in 2012, works at an alternative education high school in Philadelphia.
At the first session this year on Monday, Hickson opened by greeting the group.
The mentors and mentees were then prompted to say what was one thing they hoped to improve in 2020.
Among the responses: “Get better grades,” “Learn how to drive,” and “Eat healthier.”
Everyone then broke out in groups to create vision boards.
“The same way people in my life took me under their wing, I’m doing the same now,” said 37-year-old Jeffrey Goode, a B.O.S.S. mentor who grew up in East Camden. “I never thought I’d be a mentor, but I’ve found it’s really had an impact.”
As for the need for more mentors, Goode said he was not worried: “I know we’re looking for mentors but the way I see it, these boys will be getting older soon, and then they’ll become mentors for the younger kids coming in.”