When Camden natives (and longtime friends) Rafiah Hickson CCAS ’11, SSW ’14, pictured above, and Yaniece Spencer were brainstorming ways to give back to the youth of their city, they initially disagreed on whom to target. While Spencer wanted to focus their efforts on the city’s girls, Hickson argued that boys need more support. “For boys, especially in Camden City,” Hickson says, “it’s key that they’re able to see positive role models that look like them and that they can build rapport with and learn from.”
Soon, Spencer was convinced and, in 2017, the women founded B.O.S.S. Mentoring, a Camden-based nonprofit that seeks to build Boys of Sustainable Strength by connecting them with male role models. Five years on, the program has served more than 50 “young bosses,” boys age 8 to 18 from in and around Camden.
At the core of the program are weekly, age-appropriate group mentoring sessions highlighting one of the nonprofit’s focus areas: financial literacy, academic success, cultural competency, physical and mental health awareness, and career development. Sessions have featured a healthy cooking tutorial by the Food Bank of South Jersey, a hands-on demonstration of proper handshake technique from a local businessperson, and a lesson on stocks with a local banker.
Boys enrolled in the program also have access to one-on-one mentoring, as needed, along with group activities, such as bowling, skating, and camping. The nonprofit also offers educational programs for mentees’ parents.
The co-founders have big plans for the future of B.O.S.S. Mentoring, including adding summer camps and after-school programs, incorporating individual and family counseling, and fulfilling Spencer’s dream of adding girls to the mentee roster.
This year, B.O.S.S. Mentoring secured its largest grant to date: $25,000 from the Camden Education Fund. For Hickson, a school social worker for New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission, the funding is a step toward the nonprofit’s new goals of securing a permanent location and expanding its services and capacity. “Ultimately, we want to be a pillar for the community,” she says, “serving the whole family.”
Hickson says she stays energized by the work itself, as well as the far-reaching effects of the program. Over the years, she has particularly loved helping overwhelmed parents, giving back to the community where she grew up, and watching longtime mentees flourish. “What really keeps me motivated,” she says, “are the success stories.”
One such story is that of a mentee on the autism spectrum—a boy who, when he first came to B.O.S.S. Mentoring, wouldn’t talk to his mentors or peers. It took a group effort by mentors, including some with experience working with children with autism, and finding out the boy’s interests (anime and Roblox) to slowly build rapport.
“Now we can’t get him to stop talking,” Hickson says, laughing. “It’s really a remarkable thing. You have a kid whose social skills were lacking, and then after building on that he’s able to participate frequently and help out with the younger mentees. It’s definitely a good sight to see.”