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The first week of school finds most kids down in the dumps, mourning the end of summer and dreading the inevitable onslaught of homework and tests.

The South Philadelphia Youth Coalition of Churches is hoping to turn a lot of those September frowns upside down this weekend in a conference for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The members of the SPYCC — a group formed over the summer by directors from five area churches — came up with the idea for the "Back N’ Da Spirit Conference," a two-day event filled with workshops, prayer and celebrations for area youngsters who also could benefit from spiritual and cultural guidance.

One hundred applications were sent out to each of the participating churches and were filled out at a rate that surprised even the most hopeful of the directors, according to the Rev. Jermaine Heath, youth director for the Church of the Redeemer Baptist.

"We expected to draw a good deal of interest, but the fact that 500 kids are going to be here for our first event is really amazing," Heath said, humorously adding that the number of attendees has now thrown the directors into a last-minute planning frenzy.

The participants will be kept busy during the course of the conference, which begins tomorrow night at Shiloh Baptist Church, 20th and Christian streets, with a 7 p.m. choir celebration that will give the youths a chance to break the ice and join together in prayer.

The conference picks up bright and early Saturday morning at the Church of the Redeemer Baptist, 24th and Dickinson streets, with a 7:30 a.m. prayer session followed by a continental breakfast. If food is involved, Heath reasoned, the kids will quickly follow.

By mid-morning, the students will break off into four workshop groups categorized by grade.

Students from kindergarten to third grade will take part in arts and crafts activities and interactive workshops that use Nickelodeon favorites such as the Rugrats and the Wild Thornberrys to teach them the value of making friends and remembering God in their lives.

Fourth- and fifth-graders will work on study skills and answer questions that range from their favorite subjects to their goals in life. Heath will head a workshop for sixth- to eighth-graders called "Bling, Bling!" designed to help the youths identify their goals and values against the backdrop of an age that heavily favors materialism.

The Rev. Kristopher Reese, who teamed up with Heath to devise many of the conference’s topics, will lead a workshop for high-schoolers that will center on the importance of faith and abstinence as they grow through adolescence and early adulthood.

"The over-arching goal [of the conference] is not only to bring the kids closer to God, but also to help them to develop socially and academically," Heath said.

Both middle- and high-school boys and girls will take part in "Raw Talks," which invite students to openly discuss their social and spiritual problems.

"We’re looking forward to the Raw Talks," Heath said. "It’s important that the kids have a venue to talk about the kinds of things that are on their minds and maybe worry or confuse them."

Heath said all of the students’ parents were invited to attend an adults’ Raw Talk that will address the challenges and changes children face in the world today.

"We really wanted more parents to come out for their own Raw Talk, but we will certainly work with those that expressed an interest," Heath said, adding that parents with younger children will have a nursery available to them during their session.

The conference will end with a celebratory concert featuring the secular music of Hansoul and Tribe of Judah.

Heath hopes the success of the Back N’ Da Spirit Conference will serve as a springboard for future SPYCC events. For now, directors are planning afterschool programs that will reach out to even more students and souls.

Even as the SPYCC grows, the focus will always remain on the kids.

"We just want to help all of them to become better people," Heath said.

If you are interested in making a financial donation to the South Philadelphia Youth Coalition of Churches, call the Rev. Jermaine Heath at 215-465-1230.

Help kids achieve

The YMCA of Philadelphia & Vicinity is seeking volunteers to serve as adult mentors in the Y Achievers program. The initiative strives to help guide teens to a brighter and more secure future.

The Y is seeking professionals in the following industries to serve as mentors in the program, which runs from September through June: arts and entertainment, business and investing, communications, computers, engineering and science, health and medicine, and law and government.

Adults interested in volunteering should contact Ayanna Traylor, director of YMCA Achievers, at 215-963-3726 or atraylor@philaymca.org.

The core component of the program is the relationship established between adult and teen Achievers during the career cluster workshops in each of the above industries. Career clusters are held on the first and third Saturday of each month at Drexel University. Youth and adult interaction also occurs through activities such as college tours, work site visits, leadership training, service projects, social events and activities. Groups meet at the Christian Street Y, 1724 Christian St., the second and fourth week of each month.

Formerly Black Achievers, the YMCA program now actively serves youth from all minority backgrounds. To reflect the program’s expanded mission, the YMCA of Philadelphia & Vicinity has renamed its career preparation/mentorship program YMCA Achievers. The goals remain the same: to inspire minority youth to pursue high academic achievement, personal growth and careers by pairing them with positive adult role models.

For more information, visit www.ymcaphilly.org/achievers.

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