12/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Heroes Among Us: Youth Mentoring in "The Hood"

Pete Carroll -- Head Coach, USC Trojans -- said in a recent interview with 60 Minutes,
"Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction and coaching. The greatest things can happen. The interviewer then said, "This is your belief." Coach Carroll quickly corrected him and said, "No, I know this to be true. I live it everyday."

As you would have discovered, if you'd seen the interview, as well as coaching one of the most successful college teams in the country, Coach Carroll also works with gangs from "The Hood." I work with business leaders and find what Coach Carroll said to be true, but can people actually find this power in youth who have grown up in the very difficult circumstances in our inner cities? I recently met another hero who has been working with youth in "The Hood" for about ten years and found what he was doing a testament to what Coach Carroll said.

Discovering and Manifesting Natural Gifts in "The Hood"

So I called Tony LoRe, President & Founder of Youth Mentoring Connection, a friend of a friend who I met at a meeting of the Professional Coaches and Mentors Association. When I asked him what he and his team did, he explained that he worked with the youth of South Central LA to help them see their natural gifts and unleash the genius that those gifts enable.

What Are The Results?

Of course, I asked him if he could measure the effects of this work. Much to my surprise he said the following:
• YMC Mentees Consistently Achieve a 96-98 % Graduation Rate:
• In FY 2008, less than 2% of our mentees dropped out of school compared to 55% - 75% drop out rates in the South LA neighborhoods we draw our youth from.
• Further, in FY 2008, 100% of our graduates enrolled in college or trade school.
• Three nascent gangs have been dissolved as a result of the work of YMC staff and mentors.

Youth Under Constant Stress

He said that the youth of South Central LA are not thugs and gangsters as most people assume. They are children trying to survive in an environment that would be difficult for adults, but is extremely stressful for youth. He said that they are always on guard and very angry. Fear dominates their world. They have always been told that they don't belong, and their parents have abandoned many of them. No one truly sees them. All they really want is to be seen and listened to, like any young person.

Tony noticed that when he took them surfing or up to the mountains for a retreat, their shoulders would drop and smiles would return to their faces as their fear lifted and they moved out of a constant fight or flight syndrome. They became more open and natural.

A Mirror For Their Greatness

Like everyone, each has natural gifts. The work at the center is designed to help them discover these gifts and then apply them in their world. Each staff member is taught to notice a person's gift. Tony said, one thing to notice is when they are in their genius they stand straighter. Of course, there are many other clues that his staff is trained to notice, and then help the youth see for themselves. It is like becoming a mirror for their greatness, a coach and friend.

Creating a Better Gang to Belong To

Tony explains that they just want to belong to something, as we all do. One of humanity's primal needs is to belong. Before modern society's safety structures, the environment was so hostile that banishment meant certain death, and to a great extent the same is true in "The Hood." They grow up feeling like they don't belong anywhere, and so they create gangs to belong to. Much of the gang initiations are very similar to tribal rites that go back thousands of years.

Tony and his staff create a better gang. One that is safe and productive for the youth and society. They too have initiation rites and form a tribe that is centered with mentors, who learn to see them, and the center itself, which is an oasis of caring. Tony said, "The Youth Mentoring Center is creating an urban oasis, a community within a community that is anchored by the centers. This sense of belonging is what they are missing; we are giving them a better gang." But there are doors to enter. One is you must be in school to be mentored and receive help in job search and college counseling. They have a greeting that they took from the Lost Boys of The Sudan. It is "sawubona," which means, I see you. The response is "yabo sawubona," which means, I see you seeing me.

Transform The Way Our Culture Deals With Our Youth

Tony said, "The big dream is to transform the way our culture deals with our youth." The mentors commit to nine months, and most renew for a second and third term. Towards the end of the interview, I took a moment to thank him. I said that, like Coach Carroll, he is a hero. "No," he said, "each of those boys are the heroes. The ones, who turn their lives around and live as a model of possibility, are the true heroes in this story." He told me about one who transformed himself and went back to his gang and dissolved the gang. He confronted them and worked with them to see their own gifts.

Tony went on to say, "This work is a gift to me. My life is filled with people who are committed to seeing and manifesting each other's gifts 14 hours a day six, days a week. They are a gift to me. How many people have this kind of life? We struggle every day for funds to keep this going, but we struggle together. We belong to each other."

Just before he left for a community meeting, having read my blogs, he said that I was a hero. I said no, but I guess he sees the hero in all of us. If we could all see each other on this deep level, our whole world would change. Thanks, Tony. You are one of my heroes, a remarkably brave person who is to be admired.

"The Greatest Things Can Happen"

If your world is working, and want to help unleash the power of our youth, please find ways to help Tony and Youth Mentoring Connection. Remember what Coach Carroll said, "The greatest things can happen." Their website is