When gentle Godwin Boahen landed in Chicago Saturday to start at the University of Illinois on a whopping basketball scholarship, the Toronto teen marked a journey of more than miles.

As a young black male from one of Canada’s most troubled neighbourhoods — Driftwood, the heart of Jane and Finch — the school bus driver’s son is smashing stereotypes with a sledgehammer.

This is an 18-year-old who knows how it feels when a teammate is murdered. He has seen a neighbour with a gunshot wound to the eye. He has heard drive-by shootings from his bed. A stray bullet left a hole by the basement window of his house before his mother moved them three years ago to safer ground.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” he says quietly, on a recent visit back to his old street.

Yet the soft-spoken point guard who is off to study business accounting at a big American university, all expenses paid, says his success comes not just in spite of where he grew up, but from guiding hands he got because of it.

For nine years Godwin has been part of an after-school program of sports, schoolwork and social skills led by black male role models whose advice he says will forever stay in his head.

At a nimble 5-foot-11, he is walking proof of the power of mentors.

The non-profit program based at nearby C.W. Jefferys high school — chosen because it’s on neutral ground between gang territories and welcomes youth from both — “offers an alternative to guns, drugs and gangs,” says founder Devon Jones, a teacher at Brookview Middle School on Driftwood Ave.

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“We don’t save everyone, but these are the success stories that keep us coming back. We foster civic engagement through sports, academics and arts, because opportunity here is quite elusive,” said Jones of the Youth Association for Academics, Athletics and Character Education (YAAACE.) It offers kids a safe place after school, on weekends and in summer.

“Everyone says the answer to violence is policing and more policing. But if kids have access to an alternative to guns, opportunities to do things they wouldn’t have a chance to like travel across the province and into the States on basketball tournaments, to go camping and horseback riding, it expands their horizons,” said Jones. He and his coaches give kids their cellphone numbers as a lifeline of support.

The philosopher-coach talks about the need for more programs — “pro-social infrastructure” — to counter the social conditions that promote violence and crime.

“The fact is, our disengaged students from the communities in question pose the greatest risk to public safety and place a draconian cost on the justice system.” The answer is wraparound support and more opportunities, he said.

Godwin remembers the early pep talks from Jones and coaches Jordan McFarlane and Carlos Wadley.

“When I was younger they would tell me, ‘You’re going to have guys come up to you trying to get you to do things, but don’t make the wrong decisions — stay focused,’” recalled Godwin, one of more than 400 students from kindergarten through Grade 12 who take part in YAAACE’s wraparound programming.

“So when that happened, I did what they preached.”

Well, maybe not always.

Back in Grade 7, Godwin says he started skipping basketball practice after school to hang around with kids who were flirting with trouble.

“My mom and sister saw me just hanging around, so they called Mr. Jones. When I got home, he was sitting in my living room talking with my mom,” Godwin recalled.

“He told me what the pattern is with neighbourhood kids who make bad decisions (says Jones: “Only two outcomes — dead or in jail.”) He told me to come back to the gym, and I did.”

Said McFarlane: “Kudos to his mom and sister for calling and asking us to help. YAAACE is a safe space. We take them to places like (Canada’s) Wonderland and the museum. We take them out of this environment because we don’t want them to always be absorbing the stress. We want them to be free to be kids and also give them an alternative with what to do with their life.”

With the help of YAAACE and the sports talent incubator Canada Elite, Godwin got into St. Michael’s College School at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. from Grades 8 through 11, on scholarship.

When young basketball stars hit Grade 11 and need to travel to be scouted by universities, they join the non-profit Canada Elite program, which joins YAAACE in the city’s west end with Triple Balance Community Services from Scarborough.

The group helped him get into the St. Louis Christian Academy in Missouri for Grade 12 to get more exposure to scouts. Godwin came back to do an extra year at the Hill Academy’s basketball campus in Brantford, for even more exposure.

Jones said sponsors and partners make many of these opportunities possible, such as Canadian Tire Jumpstart, Under Armour, Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation, Telus, the Laidlaw Foundation, the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Police Services and Black Creek Community Health Centre, among others.

In Chicago, Godwin will be joined by fellow Canada Elite graduate Marcus Ottey. Former teammate Justin Jackson is off to the University of Maryland.

Is Godwin worried about staying on track so far from home?

He laughs.

“No. I’ll be hearing Mr. Jones’ voice in my head.”

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