Aaliyah Brown, a graduating senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, held forth with the authority of an artistic curator during a May 9 meeting in the naturally lit, airy board room of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation in Downtown Oak Park. 

She pointed to an undulating yellow ribbon on a painting hanging in the board room. On the ribbon were written words like “positivity” and “accountability.” 

“That’s why it goes up and down, but we know these qualities will keep them grounded and see them through as they go on the journey through middle school,” said Brown, who was among three students from YEMBA Inc. — short for Youth Educational Mentoring Basketball Association — who presented the painting to Antonio Martinez Jr., the Community Foundation’s president and CEO, and Elizabeth Chadri, its program director. Martinez had won the painting in a raffle at a gala held last year to celebrate YEMBA’s 10th anniversary. 

The OPRF senior represents the organization’s steady growth within the last year, when YEMBA, founded by engineer Edward Redd, started mentoring young girls. Previously, the organization had only focused on mentoring young men in Oak Park and River Forest middle schools. 

Over the last 10 years, Redd explained to Wednesday Journal last November, YEMBA has served more than 1,000 kids and has trained and hired more than 25 former participants to serve as mentors. 

More than 60 percent of the organization’s participants, surveyed by YEMBA, reported having moved into Oak Park during middle school. Most of them, Redd said at the time, come from places like Austin. 

During an interview in May, Redd said two OPRF graduating seniors, Brown included, were teamed with an adult mentor and a group of sixth-grade girls throughout the school year to teach them the values that were exhibited in the painting — a work of art that YEMBA participants created. 

Redd said last November’s gala increased his organization’s presence in the community and helped raise much-needed capital to fund its expansion. 

“We’re being cautious and careful about our growth within the community, but we understand that the need goes far beyond our capacity at this particular time,” he said. “We’ve served over 150 middle school kids this school year and that’s not even putting a dent in the number of kids who need this.” 

Redd explained that this year, YEMBA devoted more time to its sixth- and seventh-grade boys, and sixth-grade girls, this school year, but his team said the program needs to be implemented during the summer as well. 

“We’ve heard from school officials that kids do well when they’re in the program, but then they become idle after some time away,” he said. “Their behavior goes back to what it was because they’re not held accountable anymore.” 

Jonathan Harris, who will be a junior at OPRF next year, said that, as a junior mentor with YEMBA, he’s noticed that the positive reinforcement YEMBA provides is necessary to counteract other influences in middle-schoolers’ lives.

“A common thing I see from my mentees is a lot of peer pressure,” he said. “I’d like to change that.” 

Dylan Willis-Frank, who is also a rising junior at OPRF and YEMBA junior mentor, said that when they’re in the program, his mentees often exhibit “positive vibes.” 

“They all have a positive vibe and are really engaged in the topics we’re working on,” he said. 

Martinez praised the values of YEMBA exhibited in the paining — values he said are consistent with those of the Community Foundation, which offers support and resources to the mentoring organization. 

“We’re very proud to have this,” Martinez said of the painting. “When we have board meetings, I hope the board takes a look at this because it speaks to our values.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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