When Ty Johnson met with his childhood friend Lakia Hudson at home in Baltimore last year, they spoke about all they were gaining from their schooling. Johnson is a senior at Bowdoin, majoring in government and legal studies, and Hudson is studying education at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Together, they decided, they were equipped to do something positive for the Belair-Edison neighborhood they grew up in, which they had both watched decline since their childhood.
Johnson and Hudson knew that the neighborhood’s problems were complex, and they feared throwing themselves into a project that might result in failure. Nonetheless, they began to research their community to better understand its issues — such as low graduation rates and falling property values — to plan how they could be most effective. They decided to launch a summertime youth program focused on overcoming the fears that keep young people from striving for improvement.
Addressing fears became part of their new organization’s identity and name. The two students filed for 501(c)(3) status for their nonprofit, Konquered Fear Xchange, or KFX, for short. “Once you conquer your fear,” Johnson said recently, “and you are passionate, you can bring positive change.”
This past summer, Johnson and Hudson offered their first KFX session, from July 6 to August 6, to students ages 10 to 15. Johnson visited Belair-Edison schools in the spring to recruit students whose families couldn’t afford summertime enrichment programs. He recruited 16 campers. And he allowed one six-year-old boy to attend when he showed up at the camp hungry, Johnson said. KFX provided all its campers with free lunches.
At KFX, Johnson and Hudson focused on “academic success, positive social relations, and community uplift.” They partnered with local nonprofits to offer workshops on topics such as financial literacy and community engagement. Cory McCray, a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly, came in one day to speak to the campers about local government and his job as their district representative. An organization called Young Minds Can taught the students about the importance of budgeting, making good investments, and keeping both savings and checking accounts.
In addition, the KFX group read and discussed books and newspaper articles together. They made trips to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Native American Museum in Washington, D.C. The campers journaled every day — working on both their writing and self-reflection. They also set up small flea market with donated items to learn how a basic market works. (The campers donated the $37 they earned to a local woman with a craft business.)
“I started to get them to understand how serious it is to spend at least one-half hour a day on academic work,” Johnson said. This is especially important during the summer, he added, which is a time when students can lose some of the academic ground they gained during the school year.
To get KFX off the ground, Johnson last spring received a $5,000 Preston Public Interest Career Fund through Bowdoin Career Planning, and raised an additional $500 from local residents. He received pro bono advice on starting a nonprofit and writing a business plan from Bowdoin alumni, including Dan Spears ’81. For its home base, KFX rented a multi-purpose center in the neighborhood’s business district. The campers took breaks to play games at a nearby public field.
Now Johnson is already planning next year’s camp, and he is hoping to raise at least $8,000 to rent a better building, offer the camp five days a week instead of just three, hire another college-aged mentor, take the students on field trips to local colleges, and add more programming. “You have to show [young people] there is more for them,” he said.
Johnson said that the months he spent setting up KFX, and then running the camp this summer, helped him to reconnect with his community. He was raised in Belair-Edison by his grandmother, because his mother and father were unable to care for him. An ambitious student who went to a private school, he said he always felt like an outsider, both in his neighborhood and at Boys’ Latin School of Maryland. “KFX was a way for me to reassert myself into my community,” he reflected.
This summer, Johnson told his campers that he was not an outsider. “Guys, I haven’t left,” he said. “I’m not different from you. I’ve just had different opportunities, but you can have them too if we work together.”