Jalen Martin, 14 and an incoming freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School, presents his vision board to an audience during YEMBA's ceremony on July 28 at the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association in Oak Park. SHANEL ROMAIN/Contributor

Jalen Martin has one thing on his mind this summer – his first day at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Like most incoming freshmen, the 14-year-old is nervous about being in a new building packed with new faces, but with the help of one local youth organization, he has started to embrace the changes to come and set goals for himself like getting good grades and trying out for the school’s badminton team. 

“There’s like a lot of things that I want to do in high school,” said Martin, who graduated from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School this past June.

Martin is one of 16 recent eighth-grade graduates who attended and completed YEMBA’s first summer program geared toward helping middle school students transition to high school. The goal was to teach them skills to stay organized, manage time between homework and activities, and build self-confidence. Short for Youth Educational Mentoring Basketball Association, YEMBA is an Oak Park-based nonprofit that once used basketball to guide teens and help them engage with other parts of their lives, a mission that has evolved over the years. The addition of the latest program is an extension of that, said founder and executive director Edward Redd. 

Redd, who launched the nonprofit in 2007, said his team often works with young students who are entering middle school or high school. Redd called those years “pivotal” with students getting a little older and learning about themselves and the world around them all while being tasked with more responsibilities at home and at school.    

“Along with that comes a heightened level of peer pressure that our kids face. They’re really trying to identify themselves and who they are,” Redd said. “In that process, we have to be cognizant of who is influencing our youth.” 

With YEMBA’s newest program, Redd said he wanted Martin and other students to feel empowered and give them the time and space to think about their first year of high school. For over a month, Martin and his peers, who will also be attending OPRF in the fall, gathered in a classroom at YEMBA’s office on Lake Street, and checked out the high school’s sports teams and after-school clubs. They also perused the school site together to find key faculty and staff and learn more about resources. The organization also partnered with a local branch of Byline Bank to teach the program’s teens how to budget and save their own money and the basics of credit. 

Saadia Gayton, another student in the summer program, said she liked learning about the “financial stuff” and wants to start her own business someday. Gayton, who is also 14 and came from Brooks, makes and sells her own crochet accessories such as keychains and hats to friends, family, teachers and classmates. 

One goal Gayton has for herself is to make at least one friend in each one of her classes at OPRF and to try to be more outgoing. 

“I want to be open because I never really wanted to talk to a lot of people when I was in middle school,” she told Wednesday Journal.    

Workshops aside, Redd told the Journal that the program’s purpose was to bring young people together and help them “own” who they are as individuals, as well as motivate them to support each other and hopefully become a family.

“You never know what talents, what skills these other individuals in this room that you’re going to this big high school with, can help and support you along the journey,” Redd said. “The goal is for them to be accountable to each other.”

During the program, students created vision boards, pasting cut-out images onto a poster that signified their hopes and dreams; finalized their list of high school goals and penned letters to themselves, encouraging themselves to stay the course. The weekslong program concluded with a brief ceremony for students where they presented their vision boards to their families. 

“That’s what the commencement ceremony is all about,” Redd said. “[It’s] not only [about] them being able to talk about their vision for themselves but to also help to celebrate their commitment and their growth into the next phase.”

On Martin’s board, he drew a college building with the word “engineering” underneath. In one corner, there was a picture of a fancy watch, and another, featuring a home with a porch. Simple stick figures of Martin and his future wife were in the middle of the board, their hands holding, ready to leap into the next chapter of their lives. 

With the first day of high school just weeks away, Martin is already planning ahead – and dreaming big. 

“Don’t give up on your dreams when you’re scared,” he said, a lesson he learned through YEMBA. “Always be prepared.”

Join the discussion on social media!