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Local group supports Austin youth, makes history

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February is Black History Month, a time when many of us reflect on the 1960's and the Civil Rights Era. But there's one local organization making history in the present.

The African American Youth Harvest Foundation is credited with impacting thousands of young lives right here in Austin. The organization takes kids who are on the wrong track and uses community outreach and mentoring to turn their lives around.

America has come a long way since the 1960s. Schools are no longer segregated. Discrimination based on race is illegal when it comes to housing and employment. However, decades later, into the early 2000's, the scars from a time of inequality were still present and could be found in neighborhoods and schools throughout Austin. Drugs, violence and hunger were reality for many African American children, who were still being left behind in a world that was supposed to be equal. That trend has begun to change thanks to the vision of one man.

"Over the years I saw so many unmet needs and it touched me," said Michael Lofton, President and CEO of African American Youth Harvest Foundation.

Nearly 8 years ago the well-known Austin resident helped launch what would become AAYHF.

"It doesn't matter where you've been or what you've been through, it's about where you want to go," said Lofton.

With that attitude and a lot of help, Lofton and dozens of others, including politicians and local governments, set out to change the course of thousands of young lives.

"There is a reward in having an impact, in changing somebody's life," said Lofton.

The non-profit organization has launched more than 20 community programs. For the first time hundreds of young African American teens were offered mentoring, access to free health care and a workforce development program that helps those with criminal backgrounds find work and start a new path.

"It's like the father that they didn't have," said Nicole Maxwell. Maxwell is a mother of two teenaged sons, Caleb and CeDarius.

Maxwell says without AAYHF, raising her children as a single mother would've been nearly impossible.

"I wanted them to see a different lifestyle and experience different things," said Maxwell.

Two years ago Caleb and CeDarius were hanging with the wrong crowd and not doing well in school, and college wasn't even talked about.

"We had issues with grades. We had behavioral issues," said Maxwell.

When all hope seemed lost, Maxwell received an e-mail about activities for kids. She responded and put Caleb and CeDarius in a multimedia program where they were assigned a mentor. Wendell Williams would meet with them a few days a week.

"They were students that were kind of quiet, kind of reserved," said Williams.

Williams worked with the brothers, teaching them about confidence and respect, and showing them how to put the talents they already have to good use.

"They're super intelligent, really gifted, super creative, but no one was saying hey why don't you try this," said Williams

It wasn't long before Maxwell noticed a change in her sons.

"There's no behavioral issues. No phone calls from the schools anymore you know saying your child has done this. The grades, he started making honor roll, the one that was struggling and the talk of college. That has changed because before it was I don't know, but now with what they've experienced these couple of years that's all they talk about. They're looking forward to college."

"We are as an organization having the impact that we set out to have," said Williams.

An impact so great that according to documents turned over to the city of Austin, 99% of children and families who enter AAYHF show an increased quality of life. To date, more than 8,000 children have gone through the program

"It's about doing that humanitarian thing and making sure that every child goes to school, make sure every child has an opportunity to go to college."

A vision that makes one man's dream a reality nearly a half century later.

"Those are some of the things that Dr. King would be doing," said Lofton.

Programs through AAYHF are to any child regardless of race and are free of charge. Since it is a non-profit organization they need your help. If you would like to volunteer or make a contribution, go to www.AAYHF.org.

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