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.
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."
Still, the atmosphere is sometimes edgy. The pupils are given far more leeway than they would in conventional school, and the atmosphere borders on chaotic until they settle in to a morning routine of meditation, breakfast, and academics. During interviews, Seshmi always keeps one eye on the group, reminding pupils of their responsibilities, preempting trouble before it starts.
The approach is soft but firm. At one point Seshmi is confronted by a willful youth who keeps moving his desk backward. "If you move it one inch more, I'll move you and the table right over there," he says softly, pointing to the vacant front of the room.
The balance of discipline and support has earned the center widespread plaudits. The national education agency, Ofsted, praised FBMF as a "good school with some outstanding features." It said pupils did well at personal development, "particularly in attendance and behaviour because provision for their spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development is outstanding."
The foundation excels at getting former pupils to return as mentors. Freddie Caven came to FBMF at age 13 after he was kicked out of school for "misbehaving." Now, six years later, he's studying information technology in college – and often returns to talk to the kids. "It changed my whole attitude towards people," he says. "I didn't really listen to people before."
Other mentors provide powerful evidence of the center's success. Jacob Lewis transformed himself from a self-confessed "gangsta-man" into a budding playwright whose work has been produced at London's Royal Court Theatre. Edmond Poru went from being a school outcast at 15 to a successful student, eager to go to college.
Though he didn't attend the school himself, Dapo Soyemi, who became enmeshed in gangs and gunplay as a youth, believes it's crucial for the kids to have a black role model, too. "You need someone to look up to, a role model who isn't a footballer or a rapper, someone who goes through school, college, university, and becomes a success," says Mr. Soyemi, a social worker.
He sees the closure of FBMF as particularly devastating to the class of 2007. Though Seshmi promises to continue one-on-one sessions whenever he can, Soyemi believes many will revert to criminal activity. "There is so much peer pressure," he says. "It's very difficult to avoid."
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The crux of the problem is that FBMF has been a victim of its own success. When children started flocking to its programs, not all brought state funding with them. Those referred by their schools generally did, but the increasing number who enrolled on their own after having fallen out of the system came with no public money.
Seshmi says it costs around £2,000 per month ($4,057) for every boy in the program. The costs have mounted. He estimates the school owes £30,000 ($60,870) in taxes alone.
Some backers, meanwhile, complain that the foundation does not document its activities and achievements properly. "Because we are dealing with young people, it's difficult to find the time to do paperwork," Seshmi concedes.
Officials express regret at the cash crisis but note that funding is a perennial problem for small, volunteer-based groups. Southwark Council's chief executive, Annie Shepperd, says the foundation is "highly regarded" and that the council, which already contributes £200,000 ($405,800) a year, will consider more support.
"We do not want to see From Boyhood to Manhood forced to close as the work they do is too important," says another council official.
As for the central government, a spokesman says that it recognizes the "vital role" that groups like FBMF play and notes that a new task force had been set up to help local services.
For the kids at FBMF, no amount of help could come too soon. "I love this place," says Dushane, 13. "We're like a family here."