YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Early in his high school experience, East High School student Frank Harris had a life-changing sports injury that jeopardized both his athletic career and his motivation for an academic career.
Four years later, Harris is among the first set of high school seniors preparing to graduate this summer from the Ohio Urban Renaissance I Can program. The program is one of several offered by the Youngstown nonprofit organization at its North Avenue location, helping local students break down the barriers to academic success.
Harris attributes much of his success to Ryan Forney, president of Ohio Urban Renaissance. The two met four years ago when the I Can program was beginning.
“Mr. Forney was my first African-American teacher I had at school,” says Harris. “He’s been big on my high school career.”
While he was struggling with the motivation to apply himself in his schoolwork, Harris says Forney was always there when he needed him and pushed him to keep going.
“I can call on [Forney] for anything,” he says. “If I was slacking and I needed help with work, and it’s the last week of the grading period … Mr. Forney would be there every day of that last week to help me to get it done.”
Harris says his experience at Ohio Urban Renaissance went beyond just educational support; the agency has become like family.
Forney and Kevin Scott founded the organization in 2017, beginning with their Just Ball Amongst Life Lessons program, or Ball, which gives inner-city students a combined sports and academic mentorship opportunity.
“The initial part of why we started this was because there was a void,” Forney says. “There aren’t a lot of programs for high school-aged youth. Usually the programs are focused on smaller kids.”
Since then, several more academic programs have been added, including I Can, the What Is Now and What Is Next?” program (Win/Win) and the most recent program, the Our Prep Academy.
Another student who has been involved since the start of I Can, which is a high school support program, is Victwhon Nixon, a senior at East High School.
Forney was his high school biology teacher.
“[The program] helped me understand that I don’t have to go to college here or go to college at all and I can still do more things and make more money without college,” Nixon says. “Also, [it taught me to] just be me.”
Realizing that a college education wasn’t his only option, Nixon decided he wanted to pursue higher education for mechanical engineering. He has a 3.8 GPA and is a member of the National Honor Society, which he credits to his time with Ohio Urban Renaissance and its mentorship-based programs.
“Mr. Forney has helped me come a long way,” Nixon says. “I kind of wanted to give up on school my freshman year because my grades weren’t where I wanted them to be and he always told me to keep my head up.”
Following the I Can program, students enter the Win/Win program, which focuses on life after high school.
Jay Willis had been involved in the program six years and now is enrolled in the Win/Win program.
While he was attending Chaney High School, he had friends that were going to East High School and were already involved with Ohio Urban Renaissance.
“When I moved down here, my friends already went to East. So they already knew [Forney],” he says. “They would be talking to him and stuff. When he bought this building, we helped him clean it … so I got closer to Forney and he asked me what my next plans were.”
At the time, Willis had no plans. The program not only influenced him to want to go to college and eventually launch his own business, it also directly put him into the workforce.
Currently, 15 to 20 students are in the I Can program, Forney says. Combined with Win/Win, around 50 students are enrolled.
Forney says that helping students to get jobs is not unusual for the organization. Just this year, it has already secured jobs for roughly 20 students.
The organization has directly sent students to work in places such as Fresh Mark in Salem, and currently is sending students to a work-from-home customer service job.
“We’re looking to get official partnerships with the school systems so we can come in the school systems and run the programming,” Forney says. “We are going to keep moving forward so we have a positive impact in out community.”
Funding primarily comes from grants and renting out the spaces in its building.
Forney says Ohio Urban Renaissance is partnering with the Youngstown Community Restorative Association to help mentor juveniles. The pilot project is set to begin this summer.
The organization is always open to businesses that want to drop off applications for the students, as well as other support and partnerships, says Forney.
“If you want to be a part of our organization, we come with open arms,” he says. “I am looking forward to getting more resources so we can keep reaching more and more kids.”
Pictured: Ryan Forney, standing, is the president of Ohio Urban Renaissance. Among the students his nonprofit organization mentors are Victwhon Nixon and Frank Harris, seniors at East High School who are in the I Can program; and Jay Willis, a graduate of Chaney High School, who is in the Win/Win program.