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A London program teaches inner-city kids reading, writing, and reformation

The From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation takes in dropouts and delinquents that other schools can't reach, but now faces a crisis of its own – no funding.

By MARK RICE-OXLEYCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2007

peckham, england

At last, Uanu Seshmi has everyone's attention. "You are here because you are facing challenges," he tells a small circle of restless boys. "And some of you are running away from them." The eight youths fidget, sigh, thumb cell phones, shrink ever deeper inside hoodies and baseball caps, but ultimately relent. Most know this is their last chance.

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These are schoolboys deemed unfit for school, troubled, troublesome youngsters facing a nasty future dominated by guns and gangs in the south London badlands. Mr. Seshmi wants to show them there's another way. In an old-style church hall, he takes in boys the system can't handle and tries to turn them around with a mixture of education, counseling, exercise, one-on-one mentoring, and advice about self-control and self-esteem.

With considerable success. Thousands of boys age 12 to 17 have passed through the doors of the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation (FBMF) in the past 10 years. An official report indicated that around 60 percent reform enough to get back into school or college. Seshmi puts the success rate higher, at well above 90 percent, saying he could count the number of failures on his fingers.

"We try and let them understand that you can take control of your life," he says. "Most boys who come here are not in school, have difficult relations with their parents, are behaving disruptively, and are involved in gangs. We get these boys who have nothing back into education and training."

With gun and gang culture becoming more deeply entrenched in this part of London – more than 20 teenagers have been murdered in the British capital this year – the foundation would appear to have an important role to play.

Yet it is precisely at this delicate time that funding to the group has dried up. Staff have been laid off, the kids informed that as of January they will have to make alternative arrangements. Seshmi hopes the group will be able to reopen a few months down the line, but that will depend on getting new backers. "It doesn't make sense in the current climate with all the gun crime that is going on," says Seshmi, bemoaning the paucity of funding. "It's ironic, really."

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Community groups set up FBMF in 1996 amid growing concern in the London borough of Southwark about the number of young blacks being kicked out of school and becoming involved with gangs, drugs, and violence. Recent figures show that Southwark, a wedge of inner London south of the Thames, has the worst figures for school expulsions, and the second worst for young offenders, in the capital. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the at-risk youths' nationality.]

Although the government operates plenty of special schools for troubled youths, many kids who dropout never reenter the system. The foundation is one of the few that takes in even the most wayward teens.

Almost from the start, FBMF began attracting more pupils from the benighted surrounds of Peckham. The shocking murder in November 2000 of Damilola Taylor, a 10-year-old boy killed just moments after leaving a local library, quickly drew national attention, and funding to FBMF started to increase.

The kids in the program congregate in a cavernous church hall with faded vinyl flooring and grubby walls. A hatchway leads to a small kitchen where one staffer cooks sausage sandwiches for breakfast. A ping-pong table sits in one corner, a TV and games console in another.

The foundation offers a mix of education, sports, and exercise activities, as well as weekend workshops and work programs. Equally important, it's a place where angry young people can let off steam, learn basic rules, and sort through issues. "It's easier to learn here," says Shamar, a pupil. "The teachers don't always nag you. [The school] has taught me that fighting is not always the best way to do things."