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The crowd of middle and high school boys sat around lunch tables decorated with flowers in north Minneapolis on Tuesday, reciting what has become their mantra over the past school year.

"I am important," they shouted in unison. "I am powerful."

The words are a rallying point for a mentorship program called Boys of Hope, which celebrated its first full year of programming not disrupted by the pandemic.

Developed by Twin Cities community leaders Verna and Shane Price, the program aims to help boys and teens see a path toward college through relationships with professional men of color. They aim to promote confidence and personal development through an understanding adult, as well as community stewardship.

More than 150 students — most in junior high — completed the program this school year, meeting with their mentors weekly.

"Our boys are amazing," Verna Price said. "Every last boy in that group is incredible."

The majority of participants are students of color from eight participating public, private and charter schools, said Price, an author and professor who also runs a similar program for young women called Girls Taking Action.

School staff members sometimes reach out to the program, referring students who are struggling inside and outside of school. They also recruit others who simply want mentorship.

Mentors work with multiple students, and the first thing they address is cultivating hope, program leaders said.

"A lot of our kids they have lost hope, and they're only 12 years old," Verna Price said.

Mentors commit to staying in contact with the students even beyond high school graduation. While the majority of students are in middle school, once they graduate, the program awards college scholarships and crisp white shirts to wear to job interviews and formal settings.

"It's not enough to get you through high school and to college," Verna Price said. "We've got to get you through college."

The luncheon, at St. Mary's Greek Orthodox Event Center, was one of just two times the boys were all in one room together this year. They celebrated the graduating seniors and presented service projects that focused on helping others in the community.

When Twin Cities Academy senior Tyler Spivey came into school late a year ago, he said, a few community coaches from his school pulled him into their office and suggested he join Boys of Hope.

Being able to meet with professionals who shared insights on life was a valuable experience he said, adding that he was encouraged to "always be positive ... and save money."

Spivey, who's heading to Century College in the fall, encouraged other students to join Boys of Hope if they need a friend or positive space where they can talk to people with more life experience.