Edward Redd mingles with guests during the YEMBA 10th year anniversary celebration at Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park in 2018. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

For many young people, it feels like the odds are stacked against them and because of their age, their feelings and needs are often discounted by adults. This does little to help  them grow into confident, well-adjusted individuals.

Oak Park non-profit YEMBA Inc. is breaking that cycle.

“We’re all about doing what it takes to ensure that our kids’ dreams are not compromised,” said Edward Redd, YEMBA founder and executive director.

Officially known as the Youth Educational Mentorship Basketball Association, YEMBA’s mission is to empower the youth of Oak Park in all aspects of their lives. The mentorship program equips young people with experience, education and exposure – tools that lead to better outcomes not just for themselves, but for their families and communities.

“It’s like planting a seed,” said Redd. “You plant the seed, and you want to see it blossom and grow into something beautiful.”

In the 15 years since its founding, YEMBA has provided mentorship to over 13,000 youths. Many of those youths have become YEMBA mentors themselves, including Oak Park artist Hasani Cannon.

“When he finished his first year [with YEMBA], I gave him his first set of color utensils,” Redd recalled.

Cannon has recently received a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Springfield, according to Redd, and contributes the artwork for YEMBA’s annual coffee fundraiser.

YEMBA works within the Oak Park school system, starting with middle schoolers who are transitioning from children into more independent individuals. Adolescence is a pivotal part of a person’s development, but those changes can be difficult and uncomfortable to navigate.

Kids in the program are provided with emotional support on top of mentorship, which helps them to make good decisions. They are taught such invaluable life skills as financial literacy, leadership and accountability, as well as receive substance abuse education. The non-profit also allows youth to express themselves creatively and recreationally.

As the middle schoolers move into high school, YEMBA stays with them while they adjust to their new surroundings and manage the stress of increased academic demands. YEMBA continues to support youth even after high school. Staff and mentors help to connect recent college graduates and soon-to-be graduates with internship opportunities.

“Our youth are more than capable, more than able,” Redd said. “And that needs to be celebrated.”

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