“Man, do we have to go home?”
One might expect such a question from a teenager after a fun-packed trip away from home. But for California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) alumnus Edwin Henderson (2001, B.A., psychology), founder of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit On a Mission (OAM), the question has been asked of him after trips to places most would find not that enjoyable.
“For many of the young people we work with, their home structure is so messed up they don’t want to go back,” said Henderson, recounting a time when troubled youth he works with wanted to continue their field trip to San Quentin State Prison, where they were interacting with prisoners to learn about the harsh realities they may face if they don’t turn their lives in a more positive direction. “That’s the battle we deal with. When they go back home, what they had been dealing with before just reinforces their negative behaviors again. A lot of these kids are dealing with some type of anger or pain that often stems from their home life.”
Fields trips, like the one to San Quentin, are just one of a variety of activities and programs developed and run by Henderson and his volunteers at On a Mission. The organization was launched by Henderson in 2005 in South Los Angeles—where he was born and raised—to provide young people ages 13 to 17 alternatives to the negative influences they experience on the streets, in school, or at home. The organization operates year-round and its programs serve as many as 100 teenagers at a time.
“On a Mission is designed to keep kids off the streets and keep them busy. When they’re busy they are not selling drugs, getting pregnant, or committing crime,” said Henderson. “They need to learn they may never be the next rap or sports star. We introduce them to other alternatives and help them think about ‘Plan B.’”
A Desire to Serve
A talented athlete, Henderson attended UC Berkeley on a football scholarship, but ultimately transferred and earned his bachelor’s at CSUDH, where he found the smaller classes and attentive professors a better fit for his academic goals.
After graduating, Henderson was determined to make a difference in and around his community. He worked with the homeless on Skid Row as a case manager at the Weingart Center, and in other programs with parolees, families and mental health patients.
He eventually began working for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Southwest Community Police Station’s federal Weed & Seed program, helping young people stay out of trouble and gangs by offering them “a place to go” while they participated in comprehensive workshops, inspirational guest speaker forums, and other services.
“I learned a lot working in the program and was asked to run Weed & Seed after a while. Kids would come once a week from all over, and even from different gangs,” he said. “Once, two kids from two different gangs were fighting, but we broke it up. Soon after we split up the program by moving to a second library. It got so big, but I wanted to do more. So I applied for my 501c3 and started On a Mission. It’s been going strong ever since.”
On a Mission’s signature program is called “Boys to Men,” an eight-week mentoring and behavior modification program in which instructors talk about gangs and their consequences, and topics related to building a better future. They also offer wellness programs designed to encourage healthy living by teaching the benefits of physical activity and eating better. A similar program is also designed for girls.
To make them more self-sufficient and attractive to employers, the program also teaches the boys how to use email, open a bank account, develop a résumé, and how to dress and prepare for job interviews—even how to tie a tie. They also learn how to set goals and think about different career options.
On a Mission’s field trips are among its most popular programs. In addition to the visit to San Quentin State Prison—Henderson noted they are informational and eye-opening but not an “in your face scared straight type of experience”—both boys and girls are taken on social and fun excursions, such as fishing trips, summer camps and Catalina Island.
Those who show more commitment to bettering their lives are offered the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. To go on the trip, they need to show their most recent report card, get a letter of recommendation, complete a sit down interview, and write a one-page essay regarding why they should be allowed to go.
“We spend three days in D.C. We tour the White House, Pentagon, the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. Capitol building, as well as visit monuments and colleges,” Henderson said. “Next month [March 2015], we’re taking a group of kids to D.C. for the fourth time. We don’t just take every kid. It’s kind of a reward.”
The participants’ parents are charged $675 for their child to go to D.C., which includes airfare, hotel and meals. If both the parent and child have a desire to go, but don’t have the money, OAM helps with the cost.
“We’re not going to turn them down. We’ll find a way. We took a young lady to Washington D.C. last year. Her mom’s an immigrant who sells oranges on the street, and they live in a garage,” said Henderson. “The girl had a 3.8 GPA in high school and she really wanted to go, but didn’t have any money. So not only did we get her there, but we gave her a little spending money. We also helped her get a four-year academic scholarship to attend Cal State Los Angeles.”
Henderson’s partnership with the LAPD has grown exponentially over the years. In fact, since the sale of the building in 2012 that OAM leased for its programs, the organization has been operating out of the Southwest police station while raising funds and searching for a building to purchase.
Henderson works closely with LAPD officer Irwin Rocha, the station’s youth coordinator who runs its Jeopardy gang prevention and intervention program. He leads a total of nine youth programs—the most of any police station in Los Angeles—that serve approximately 350 young people a year from the ages of 8 to 17.
Rocha, a drug abuse expert who also teaches its negative effects on the mind and body, sits on On a Mission’s board of directors, and works “really well” with the organization even connecting his LAPD youth programs with On a Mission as much as possible, according to Henderson.
With the continued “credibility” of working with Rocha and the LAPD, and a new larger facility, Henderson sees a bright future for On a Mission.
In the near future, he will launch an anti-bullying campaign with a grant from the Los Angeles Clippers, which will involve the LAPD and the basketball team’s players.
With the new building, Henderson plans to create all-inclusive youth programs that feature expanded counseling and mentoring, more field trips, and such sports programs as swimming, gymnastics, and martial arts, as well as other activities.
“We want a facility that’s big enough to have a basketball court. We want to be a place where kids can come every day, and after school. We want to have a driver to take them home at night so they don’t have to walk the streets,” he said. “I’d also like to expand to Philadelphia. I have connections there.”