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Boys II Men marks a decade of offering hope to Aurora youth

AurorMayor Tom Weisner presents donatiOne ThousDollars Boys Men Program during Boys Men 6th Annual Phenomenal Man Awards Ceremony Gaslite Manor

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner presents a donation of One Thousand Dollars to the Boys to Men Program during the Boys to Men 6th Annual Phenomenal Man Awards Ceremony at Gaslite Manor in Aurora, IL on Thursday, January 31, 2013 | Sean King~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:23AM

AURORA — The two front rows of elementary and middle school age boys listening intently during the Boys II Men Phenomenal Man Awards ceremony probably didn’t realize that the packed house was for them.

“We do not recognize people for their glory or credit,” said Clayton Muhammad, founder of the mentoring group.

“We do this so all our young people can see the community leaders who love and support you,” he told the youths.

The sixth annual Boys II Men Phenomenal Men of the Year awards cast a light on the academic and community achievements of young men who overcame adversity early in their lives.

This year’s recipients were Raul Buendia, Ignacio Cervantes, Jared Marchiando, Marc McMillan and Je’Todd Smith.

Muhammad told the nearly 800 people gathered at the Gaslite Manor, that 10 years ago they set out to show the city does have good young men who can get along.

“We had suffered 25 young people killed in Aurora and we wanted a little bit of healing – we didn’t know it would last,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad, the East Aurora School District spokesman, said they never imagined the program would grow from the city of Aurora to chapters in Greensboro, N.C., Tampa, Fla., and an international chapter in Canberra, Australia.

Marc McMillan a high school teacher from Mobile, Ala., and a 2012 Magna Cum Laude graduate of Tuskegee University, told the youths that his father left his family when he was 5-years-old, his sister was 2-years-old — and his mother was 8 months pregnant. His grandfather was the only male figure in his life, but he died when McMillan was 14-years-old.

“…Life doesn’t just test us, life teaches us lessons along the way,” McMillan said.

Jared Marchiando, the first president of Boys II Men and 2006 East Aurora High valedictorian, is now a financial consultant. He said the changes in his life began when his mother left an abusive relationship when he was 5, and when he arrived at Waldo Middle School and met Muhammad.

“He saw in me so much more,” Marchiando said of Muhammad, who would go on to adopt Marchiando as his son.

He said another phase of his life came in high school when so many “team members” supported him.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner said 2002 was “one of the worst” in a series of deadly years, but last year the city did not have any lives lost to violence.

“We have people in law enforcement, but they didn’t do it alone,” Weisner said.

The mayor said critical elements that helped to reduce crime were the character-building principles and values over the decade that have guided at-risk young people involved in the Boys II Men program in Aurora.

“These young men are phenomenal in terms of their caring, giving back to community and helping each other through life,” Weisner said.

Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said from the 1990s through the early 2000s, the city averaged 15 murders a year and shootings were in the triple digits.

“For the last five years, we saw 2.5 murders a year, an 83 percent decrease,” the chief said. “Those are some great statistics, however we must remember that for every murder there are families, friends and an entire community that suffer. It was going to take a community to solve the problem.

“In a way, the community rebuilt its culture from one of violence to one of cooperation.”

Thomas said they were many factors in police strategies and work done outside of the police department, including the East Aurora NJROTC program and the dozens of other youth programs that gave students a better direction than going into gangs.

“When the police department established our goal for a reduction in shootings, we knew that we were not going to arrest ourselves out of the problem or that we would do it alone,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the Boys II Men program was a major contributor.

“The lie about joining a gang for money, girls and excitement had to be exposed for a truth. It is prison, loss of family, friends, injury and murders,” he said.

“For 10 years the program has been positively influencing the next generation by teaching values, principles and raising the consciousness of the circle of support groups… It showed it was cool to be honorable, to have integrity, to appreciate family and value education,” Thomas said.

“Attitude has a lot to do with what you accomplish,” said Raul Buendia, a U.S. Army veteran, Aurora University graduate, and financial counselor to middle- and low-income families.

Je’Todd Smith, a Michigan State University graduate, is now a college admissions advisor. Smith told the youngsters “surround yourself around like-minded individuals. Don’t be a part of the status quo – dare to be different.”

Ignacio Cervantes, a junior at Aurora University, is the youngest-ever East Aurora School Board member.

“They told me it was impossible to go to English classes, they told my mom it was impossible to become a U.S. citizen and that it was impossible for me to stay in Aurora and become the man I am today,” Cervantes said.

“The impossible has become the possible,” he said.

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