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STAR-TELEGRAM
Twenty years later, UJOMA men's group connects with youths to stop gang violence, promote values

Posted Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, By Shirley Jinkins syjinkins@star-telegram.com

 --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------"There's a good man," said Rhance Guerin, a 16 -year-old sophomore. "He's one of our father figures around the school. He makes us stay up on our grades."

FORT WORTH -- Twenty years ago, Luther Perry was a Fort Worth police officer concerned about soaring gang violence. "We had 201 murders that year in the city of Fort Worth," said Perry, who said many were gang-related. "We had to do something." Perry set up a meeting with other civic-minded men in the community who agreed to form a group of male mentors. They called themselves UJOMA, the Swahili word for unity.

They said a program was needed that would intervene in gang activity before gang members got to the point of violence and incarceration. They began working with troubled students who could not function in a regular classroom. "Now, we work in the schools with our students on modification of behaviors," Johnny Muhammad said. Muhammad is the UJOMA site director at Dunbar High School, one of a dozen on-campus programs the group operates under contract with the Fort Worth school district.

UJOMA's on-campus presence is filled by full-time paid site directors like Muhammad, though much of the directors' work includes visits to students' homes. On a recent Monday afternoon, Muhammad was off-campus helping a student in crisis. "He got in trouble and now he's homeless," Muhammad said. "I was trying to see what we could do to get him placed somewhere, get him a bus pass, and any other social services he might need." Muhammad gives his cell phone number to the students and encourages them to call him about anything. "There's a good man," said Rhance Guerin, a 16-year-old sophomore. "He's one of our father figures around the school. He makes us stay up on our grades." Muhammad said he rewards good grades by handing out bus passes. Bruce Lee, a UJOMA director who answers to "Dad," works at Forest Oak Middle School.

"We call them 'identity kids' because they're trying to find themselves at that age," said Lee, a former Fort Worth teacher with a degree in child psychology. "A lot of times, I'm the only father they're around. So, I'm a father for about 800 kids." The dozen men now in the UJOMA program come from different backgrounds and occupations, but their mission is to instill their shared values of integrity, leadership, hard work, self-esteem and positive fatherhood in young men, said Perry, the group's program director.

Muhammad said: "We help our students get prepared to make better choices while they're in school. We try and teach them all the information they'll need to be good men." Deandre Brown, who was a member of UJOMA from seventh grade through high school, said the group was like a family to him. "They give you a good foundation," said Brown, a 2007 Dunbar graduate who earned an associate degree in art from Navarro College in Corsicana and a sociology degree from Louisiana Tech. "They're real family-oriented and they care about you," Brown said. "I had a lot of friends in UJOMA. The UJOMA men were really good about keeping us out of those streets."

The program is in 12 schools from elementary to high school, including Dunbar and Eastern Hills high schools. This year it has added O.D. Wyatt High. UJOMA site directors offer enrichment classes during the day that average 10 to 12 students and often have guest speakers. All classes conform to state-mandated curriculum. They promote self-esteem, academic excellence, drug awareness, hygiene, money management and personal accountability, and they are open to all students.

Members have access to a resource bank that includes an intervention specialist, an advocacy program, community connections including churches, health agencies and job banks, criminal justice advocates, economic development program specialists, tutorial mentorship programs, and education about preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Each site director is trained in the curriculums taught to the students at each site and is required to attend school training sessions offered to the staff. Site directors are knowledgeable of school policies and procedures, and have had a thorough background investigation, and all directors are accountable solely to the principal.

 UJOMA has branched out over the years to offer its services to boys and girls of all ethnicities and to international students. The school district considered pulling the program's $232,000 of annual funding last year during a round of significant budget cuts, but trustees relented and awarded another five-year contract. The money pays the 12 site directors' salaries. The UJOMA members figure they've worked with more than 50,000 students over the past two decades. Some second-generation students are entering the program voluntarily in a community that knows well the UJOMA organization's work.

"We have a historical perspective in the eyes of the parents," Perry said. "We have kids that have gone on to college. That's a great testimony. They'll walk up to us and say, 'We can't remember your name, but you're one of those UJOMA guys.'"

Online: www.umojaftworth.org 

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657 Twitter: @shirljinkins  

 

National Life Group Life Changer of the Year Nominee - Johnny Muhammad, Dunbar High Schooll

Dunbar High School Site Director is recognized as one of the National Lifetime Group Life Changer of the Year Nominees. Awarded for over 20 years of community support in making a positive change in young men's lives.

Published on Sep 21, 2012 by (Click title to see video)

 

For the last two decades, Johnny Muhammad has earned the respect of the people in his community. His exemplary work with at-risk students in Fort Worth has earned him a nomination for the National Life Group Life Changer award.

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