To volunteer or to learn how to start your own Boys Inc. site, contact Spencer McCall at 757-0665.
The after-school crowd at Shepherd Community Center is a noisy one. Young kids and teenagers run up and down the hallways as basketballs thump and sneakers screech in the gym.
But tucked in a classroom, about six boys huddle on a couch and chairs, quietly listening to a neurosurgeon explain his craft.
The boys, mostly from Tyner Middle Academy, listen intently as Juan Gonzalez, a first-generation American, tells the boys about his immigration from Mexico and how he became a doctor.
They're some of the first to get involved in a new after-school program designed exclusively for young boys and teens called Boyz Inc. It's aimed at providing boys with positive role models and support as well as giving them a safe haven in the late afternoon and early evening -- considered the most dangerous time of day for youth because they often go unsupervised.
The program, a partnership between the James A. Henry YMCA and the Chattanooga Department of Education, Arts and Culture, has started at a handful of sites around the area, and organizers expect it to grow fast.
It's currently operating in places such as the Howard School, Shepherd Community Center and in East Ridge and the Westside. But organizers say the program isn't just for inner-city or at-risk youth.
"We believe that all kids are at-risk," said Spencer McCall, executive director of the J.A. Henry Community YMCA. "All kids could use leadership training, mentorship and positive role models."
So far, organizers are inviting boys they think could benefit from the program.
"It's for any young man who wants to succeed but doesn't know how," McCall said. "It's not a program for kids who are bad."
The local effort is a national pilot for the YMCA, which could replicate Boyz Inc. in communities across the country. McCall said it's easy to duplicate because it's volunteer-based and no to low cost.
"We think this is a model that can work in many communities," McCall said.
Every other week, a professional adult like Gonzalez meets with the boys. The rotating speaker is complemented with college volunteers, parks and recreation employees, YMCA staff and other adult males who work to provide guidance and support.
Organizers say they need more men to step forward to speak to or work with the groups.
"Anybody can create their piece in this," said Missy Crutchfield, administrator with the Department of Education, Arts and Culture.
She said organizers found programming and opportunities available for young women but didn't find as much for young men.
The program is especially important, given the city's renewed focus on combating youth gangs, officials say. The recently released Chattanooga Comprehensive Gang Assessment cited lack of role models, breakdown of the traditional family and a desire to belong as just some of the reasons kids join gangs.
"These boys are desperate for role models," Crutchfield said.
And for her, the work of shaping young men is personal.
"I'm a single mom and over the years I've felt the weight of not being able to teach my son how to be a man," she said. "I can teach character, but I can't teach him to be a man."
So far, the program is proving popular. One boy at Shepherd left in a stomping fit last week when his mother picked him up early. He didn't want to leave.
Sherrod Mitchell, a sixth-grader at Tyner Middle, said he likes hearing from the speakers. Sherrod, who said he lives with his mom and siblings, said the program combines learning and fun.
"It's like school," he said. "But better."