By Flora Tsapovsky
At-risk and low-income communities don’t necessarily come to mind when one thinks of Marin County. One of the most affluent regions in the country, Marin is nevertheless home to some harrowing statistics. Let The Defenders—a South Marin nonprofit organization that provides boys and teens with role models, behavioral support and year-round mental health services—do the math for you: Fifty young boys from Bayside/Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy and Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito, ages 11 to 18, are currently participating in the program. Most of them reside in Marin City and 98 percent of them lack a father figure in their household. Identifying itself as a health organization and led by Marin City Health & Wellness Center, the program strives to combat the negative wealth implications of this circumstance, and is geared towards empowering the young men.
The boys enrolled in The Defenders program are instilled with ample responsibility; they get an appetite for entrepreneurship by participating in The Defenders Paper Company, where they sell cleaning and paper products and learn about financial management, presentation and work skills. Additionally, they participate in weekly business meetings, bi-monthly leadership meetings in Sacramento, martial arts training and volunteering. Through these activities, the boys learn how to build a life plan and stick to it, how to create a productive family and school environment for themselves and how to be role models in their communities. This inspirational model has earned The Defenders the top spot on the contributors’ list at this year’s 100Marin fundraiser—they pulled in $40,000 from local donors.
The program’s facilitator, Zared Lloyd, 24, started The Defenders two years ago, after having worked with young men throughout his life. “It became easier and easier and I realized that’s what my passion was,” he says. Lloyd met JayVon Muhammad, the CEO of Marin Health Clinic in South Carolina, where he lived at the time. Muhammad extended him the invitation to build a program from scratch.
These days, Marin City isn’t that much different from what he’s used to: “Every black community I’ve visited is pretty much the same—fast food, poverty, single moms, the mindset—not wanting anything more for yourself,” he adds.
Two key factors stand out, however. “The view is beautiful,” Lloyd says. “It does affect the quality of life.” With the gorgeous sites, comes another less favorable difference: “It seems as if the inferiority complex here is even deeper, because they’re surrounded by rich people; there seems to be no way out—they don’t even get to see the middle class,” he says. “I often point to the beautiful houses on a hill and say, ‘I believe you’ll live there one day,’ and teach the kids to believe in themselves and not limit themselves to their immediate environment.”
The Defenders, Marin City Health & Wellness Center, 630 Drake Ave., Marin City; 415/339-8813; marincityclinic.org.