When engineer Edward Redd founded YEMBA (Youth Educational Mentoring Basketball Association) in 2007, he didn’t quite know what it would become, but it didn’t take long for him to turn a youth basketball team into something much larger. Today, what was a part time volunteer job as a youth coach has morphed into a full-time calling that works with youth throughout Oak Park schools from middle school through high school.

Growing up in North Lawndale with a single mother and a father who was murdered when he was five, Redd says he was the beneficiary of many helping hands. “I understood that as a kid growing up, I benefitted from the sacrifice of my parent and grandparents. I had a village of teachers, neighbors and the local YMCA. They educated me and led me to be able to dream. They were role models.”

He went on to earn degrees in electrical and computer engineering, but knew that giving back was going to be a part of his path. When he was approached to coach a youth basketball team in 2007, he says he knew it couldn’t just be about the game. “I’m big on the education side of things. I believe in the circle of life. You need to incorporate youth life skills like respect, communication and teamwork. It’s important not only on the field but off the field.”

After that first team won the youth basketball league conference, Redd expanded the program to become an after-school program, which initially met Friday nights for eight weeks. Today, it has become a stand-along program, operating two days a week at Oak Park middle schools. Redd notes that last year, YEMBA served 112 kids with 2,900 mentoring hours. YEMBA’s mission today is, “To educate our youth mentally, physically and spiritually with a life-long learning and service experience through group mentorship that will equip them with knowledge and tools for leadership development and success in life.”

Redd says he realized that middle school was a critical time for youth to understand their self-worth and values and states that he was seeing kids facing tough challenges. “About 95 percent of the youth we serve are minorities from low income homes. A lot of them have single parents who are working two jobs just to get into Oak Park. We’re a support branch for these youth who are looking for caring adults that look like them, believe in them, and that hold them accountable.”

He realized that when kids graduated from middle school, they still needed some of that guidance, so he began a Mentoring, Empowerment and Training program for high school students to help them with college and career readiness. These students are also an important part of the YEMBA program, coming back to work with middle school students as mentors. Redd says the mentors are not only good role models for younger kids but the process “starts the ball rolling. They get a start on philanthropy. Someone made a sacrifice for them, and when you get to be my age, you can do the same for youth.”

Redd highlights one YEMBA participant who gave back to the program while in high school. When the student first joined YEMBA in sixth grade, he was so shy, that his mother attended every after-school meeting alongside him. Redd recalls that it took weeks for the child to join in on his own, but by the end of his third year in YEMBA, he was an active part of the group. When he went to high school, the dividend paid off. Redd says of the young man, “He was not only an A student, but he was in several clubs, including tutoring and foreign language. He also came back to be a mentor for younger students. We asked him to give a speech at our annual gala, and he knocked it out of the park. He is a success story.”

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