By Angel Gingras
For The Diamondback

Two University of Maryland alumna are working to improve the lives of students in the Washington, D.C., area through mentorship and after-school programming at the Youth Leadership Foundation.

Janaiha Bennett is an alumna of this university and the executive director of the Youth Leadership Foundation in Washington, D.C., which provides mentoring to students from third to 12th grade who live in underrepresented communities. She is the first female to hold this position in the organization’s 24-year history.

“The relationships that are created between the students and the staff are really deep-seated … you just bond, and so it is sort of a family and a community” Bennett said. “So essentially what we do is give students the tools they need to fulfill their potential as a human being.”

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YLF is a year-round program open to students in any of the organization’s seven partner schools in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Students can take part in after-school or weekend programs during the school year or in the five-week summer camp as often as they want. This fall, the staff is running an in-person program with the option for students to attend virtually.

Bennett was first introduced to YLF when she was an undergraduate student at George Washington University. She joined other college students and began mentoring young women, working her way up through various program roles, until she became executive director in 2018.

Bennett was also at YLF when she graduated with her master’s degree in school psychology from this university in 2013, which she said contributes to the work she does at YLF.

“I learned a lot about working with individual students and how to work with teachers so that they can help students,” Bennett said. “It was a really great experience.”

Kayla Montgomery, also an alumna, began her mentorship with the organization when she was a sophomore at this university. She graduated with a degree in criminology and criminal justice in 2020.

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Montgomery was recently presented with the YLF Mentor of the Year Award for 2020.

“I’ve never really been recognized for the hard work that I’ve put into something before, so it just made me feel really good that I was able to make such an impact,” Montgomery said. “Another goal … for students is that they take my efforts and everything we’ve told them to heart and actually use it in their lives.”

The mentorship component Bennett and Montgomery carry out is just one part of what the nonprofit offers. Students also receive academic help and participate in team-building activities and trips to get to know each other. The organization has two signature programs: one for young women, the Program for Academic and Leadership Skills, and one for young men, the Tenley Achievement Program.

Foday Kamara works as the associate program director for the Tenley Achievement Program. He participated in YLF when he was in middle school and became a mentor when he was an undergraduate at Pasco-Hernando State College.

“The people that I met, we just remain connected over the years … and eventually … I was able to start working at YLF as a mentor,” Kamara said. “Seeing the joy in their eyes, seeing them grow and become better men, there’s no reward like it.”

The staff at YLF hopes to continue to grow their program and help students who are struggling mentally and academically during the pandemic. Bennett is thankful for her role at the organization and enjoys seeing the benefits students receive.

“The culture here is just a really loving culture,” Bennett said. “I get a constant feed of these positive stories from parents, from students, from staff members, and I count myself very lucky.”