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In Takoma Park, teens get a confidante — and life coach

By Lindsay A. Powers,

Ibrahim “Ibs” Kondeh paused a moment before he began his impression of the moonwalk dance.

“Michael Jackson!” shouted some of the other teenagers in the room seated around Kondeh in chairs and on couches.

On Amadou Abakar’s turn, he threw a few punches and said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”

“Muhammad Ali!” someone said.

The group of about 20 kids filled the room in the Takoma Park Community Center that February evening to be part of MANUP — or Making A New United People — a nonprofit organization working to be a source of guidance in the Takoma Park and general Washington area.

“We, at the very least, want to be positive male and female mentors that they have in their lives,” said the nonprofit group’s president, Brandon Johns, one of its founders. “I think, a lot of times, youth don’t see positive male and female mentors or people in their lives, and that’s who we want to be.”

The organization offers activities and mentorship for any boy or girl who fits the group’s roughly 12- to 19-year-old age range.

Word about the group often spreads through “kids telling other kids,” said Johns, of Takoma Park, a policy analyst for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The group meets each Tuesday with a curriculum that includes games as well as discussions on history, education, job training, entrepreneurial skills, internships and life goals, among other topics.

About once a month, kids also get together for activities such as bowling and museum trips, said Johns, who — along with the other mentors — sometimes covers the program’s expenses.

“The hands-on things are the things that we see they really like. and they really enjoy and they want to learn,” he said.

While the kids laughed and joked during the meeting, the charades-like game was also a chance to teach.

Johns and another mentor told the kids that rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs worked at an unpaid internship while he attended Howard University in the District and drove back and forth from New York.

“That’s the hard work you got to put in,” Johns told them.

Johns said that over the course of a year, the program reaches about 150 kids.

He and some friends, also former Howard students, started MANUP in 2009.

“Before we were a nonprofit, we just said we wanted to come together and work with kids — we thought it was important to give back to our community,” Johns said.

Amadou, 13, said he has attended the program for about a month and has found a place that allows him “to do something productive” rather than hang out on the streets.

Amadou, an eighth-grader at Takoma Park Middle School, said he can go to the mentors with problems about school, and life in general, and knows they care.

“They don’t have to do this job. They choose to,” he said, later adding, “We’re like a family here.”

Johns said he and the mentors try to help teenagers feel comfortable so they can talk openly.

“They tell me things that I guarantee they don’t tell anybody,” Johns said. “Probably not even their parents, or definitely the teacher.”

The length of time a kid will be involved varies, but many stay invested in MANUP, Johns said.

Johns said he saw one 21-year-old participant — who joined the program at age 17 — overcome obstacles in his life that led to taking classes at Montgomery College and making money from his photography.

“It’s not going to happen in one day, we understand,” he said. “But to keep being the positive example week after week after week, we think it soaks in at some point.”

With a soccer ball at her feet moments after the February meeting adjourned, 15-year-old Arlin Rivera said she first attended the program about six months ago, when she heard about it from a friend.

Before she joined, Arlin said, she sometimes participated in activities that got her in trouble. Now, she attends MANUP. She said most of her friends are there, and she finds fun and “good conversations.”

Johns “speaks about his experiences, and he lets us speak about ours,” Arlin said.

“The things they say actually make me think twice,” she added.

Taisha Ferguson of Silver Spring, a former math teacher for eighth-graders, recently joined MANUP’s group of about eight volunteers. She said she might help develop a different curriculum for the girls.

Ferguson said “the level of engagement and enthusiasm” among the kids was immediately apparent to her, as well as the connection between them and Johns.

“They have a good rapport,” she said. “They respect his opinion.”

One of the main goals, Johns said, is for the kids to learn.

“I want them to take something about the history of who they are,” he said. “I want them to strive to do better.”

© The Washington Post Company