At age 16 Yehiah, the youngest of five, was living in Waltham, Massachusetts. With all of his siblings in college that seemed like Yehiah’s path, too. Then the economy took a downturn, his family fell on hard times, and he says, “My grades dropped and I started hanging out with the wrong people.”
It would have been easy to brand him a troublemaker. Instead, his counselor at high school, who had known all four of Yehiah’s siblings, took the time to steer Yehiah toward More Than Words. A REDF-supported social enterprise, More Than Words empowers youth, ages 16 through 24, who are disconnected from school or work to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a bookselling business.
Yehiah decided to learn more and went in for an interview. “I’m happy I was truthful and honest about what was going on in my life,” says Yehiah. “The interview made me feel good about taking a chance and really stepping out of my comfort zone to let others help me in my life. I’ve never experienced that kind of support. At More Than Words the youth development manager actually cared about me and the things I was doing. I could tell that More Than Words was a place that, whatever I was going through, I would be given help and wouldn’t be shamed for the things I was going through in my life.”
For Yehiah, working at More than Words meant a connection with a community that shared his experiences and knew where he was coming from. “Everyone here in the building,” he says, “regardless of what you’re going through or regardless of why you’re even here, we all need guidance and we all need support.” As a Social Enterprise dedicated to providing a second chance to young people, the support provided by More Than Words includes professional skills development as well as a focus on attaining a GED, building a resume, and practicing for job interviews, along with the life skills most of us take for granted: opening a bank account and getting an ID.
More Than Words provided more than a job; it offered an opportunity to gain leadership skills. To a casual observer, More than Words looks like a bookstore. To Yehiah, now a 19-year-old, it means, “being a leader, taking on responsibility, and working on the business side of the business. Once I started to really learn about what More Than Words was about, what it was capable of, and seeing some of the things that they put on me that affected my life in a positive way, I really wanted to be a leader. Standing up and being a leader is something I’ve always wanted to do. When I came here it opened my eyes that if I can continue to work at it, I can become a leader and guide others.”
Others at More Than Words have seen the changes Yehiah has gone through. Following a year-and-a-half in the program, Yehiah is now a Junior Business Training Manager. His leadership by example has been powerful. His peers now reach out to him for advice and help. “Everyone here knew that I wanted to go to college, that nothing was going to get in the way of that. As people started to see that, they’d come up to me and say things like, “Can you help me with my homework? Why are you so positive? How do I become a better leader?”
His guidance is straightforward. “If you have a dream,” he counsels, “continue to live it and build on it regardless of any struggle that you go through. At More Than Words I learned there are people willing to help you. If you actually put the effort and the time behind it, then slowly, but steadily, you will change your life.”
His education and appointment manager at More Than Words helped Yehiah enroll in a foundation year at Northeastern, then began “tirelessly looking for colleges for me.” Thanks to Yehiah’s performance at Northeastern, he was accepted at six out of the eight schools he’s applied to. Yehiah feels he’s on track to succeed. This fall he’s starting college at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with the goal to attend law school once he graduates.
“One of my main goals in life is to become a lawyer,” he says. “Being African-American, I want to defend those who aren’t defended. My goal is to change how things are looked at, how things are carried out. That’s something I want to work towards.”
If there’s one thing Yehiah wants people to know, is that’s he’s still on his journey. “I’m not finished. I’m going to continue to push others and myself. I’m not finished at all.”