As they carry donated food out of Great Western Bank in Shawnee, Kansas, five teenage boys boast about whose load is heaviest.
One flexes. “Them’s cannons right there!”
Another snorts. “I’m stronger than – ”
“Yeah, right,” interrupts Will Anderson, their mentor. On this last day of an intensive two-week summer program, he’s driven junior members of the Urban Ranger Corps across town to pick up donations for the food pantry at Covenant Presbyterian Church. Anderson jiggles the van keys. “Let’s go.”
But before they clamber back into the van, the boys chant together, “Excuses. Excuses are monuments of nothingness. They build bridges that lead to nowhere. Those who use these tools of incompetence are masters of nothingness. Excuses.”
Eighty-six percent of the teenagers in this program live in poverty. Ninety-nine percent are black. Seventy-five percent come from single parent households.
“The majority of them don’t have a father figure at home,” Anderson says. “I just try to give them what my father gave me – structure, discipline, a hard work ethic and a positive attitude.”
Anderson, who is studying to be a teacher, works with kids with autism during the school year. It’s his second summer with the Urban Ranger Corps.
“A lot of them are into things I used to be into – tech, comics, movies, art, music,” Anderson says of the junior rangers, who are 12 and 13 years old. “It’s pretty interesting getting to know this new generation, really no different than me growing up.”
The program is designed to keep teenage boys on track between middle school and high school graduation, says Urban Ranger Corps President Erik Dickinson.
“Trying to get them to understand what it takes to be professional, to be on time, to be dressed appropriately, just ready for the next step in their lives,” he says. “We had a team that worked on a working farm. We had a team that mowed about a million square feet of blighted area here in Kansas City.”
The teens are paid for their work.
Dickinson likes to say the Urban Ranger Corps only takes the best of the best, but according to Program Director Lynn Johnson, people don't see always see the potential in these teenagers.
“It’s almost like a hidden gem. A lot of these young men are really rough around the edges,” Johnson says.
So Johnson looks for mentors that can be superheros to the kids who need them – “super mentors,” he calls them.
He also looks for men who aren’t afraid to put in a hard day’s work. Anderson, for instance, used to work for the railroad.
“(Teenagers) don’t like getting up at 7 o’clock in the morning,” Dickinson confirms.
But if they can tough it out, they get to go on an overnight camping trip.
“For a lot of these young men, it’s their first chance to go sleep in a tent or use a canoe,” says Dickinson. “They enjoy that.”
Across the street, a grateful Rev. Kirk Perucca is thanking the junior rangers for replenishing the food pantry at his church.
“We really appreciate it,” Perucca tells them, shaking each young man’s hand.
Jorden Gates, one of the junior rangers, says he hasn’t minded getting up early because they’ve been doing fun things like helping pull honeysuckle from a forested area near Swope Park.
So will he be back next summer?
“Oh yes,” he says. “Definitely.”
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. Reporter’s Notebook is an occasional preview of what she's working on. Find Elle on Twitter @ellemoxley.