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Tomorrow’s leaders

Youth program promotes physical, mental health

Jeremiah Witherspoon Jr. (right), co-founder of Leaders of Tomorrow, uses focus mitts with Vienna Shoup, 14, of Altoona, at Scorchin’ Boxing Gym during a boxing session. The Leaders of Tomorrow program serves youth ages 11 to 17 and promotes physical and mental health as well as the development of life skills. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Helping the youth of today to be the leaders of tomorrow is often no easy task, but the rewards far outweigh any work involved, especially when those taking on the task can see the impact their actions make.

“The beauty is watching them grow,” said Jeremiah Witherspoon, co-founder of Leaders of Tomorrow, a program that serves youth ages 11-17 and promotes physical and mental health as well as the development of life skills.

Witherspoon credits the communication between mentors and youth for the program’s success.

“They open up, and you see the impact,” he said.

The local program to give youth an outlet through fitness of both the mind and body is the brainchild of Witherspoon, who was a professional boxer from 2010-15.

Jeremiah Witherspoon talks with each student in his mentoring group Leaders of Tomorrow before their workout session. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

A New Jersey transplant, Witherspoon moved to Altoona, where he has family ties, in 2005.

Witherspoon said his professional life changed drastically when he was forced to give up boxing after being hit by a car and suffering multiple injuries.

A self-described “big community individual,” Witherspoon eventually found his footing and transitioned into youth outreach, starting the Leaders of Tomorrow program in 2019.

He said he was inspired to start the program because of his father, who ran similar programs in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey.

“My father ran the (community) centers with basketball and stuff like that, so he was always in the community and working with kids,” Witherspoon said.

The program provides a range of group activities and educational opportunities.

“I tell them that to prepare for tomorrow is to do your best today,” Witherspoon said. “They are our future.”

The group meets each week at Scorchin’ Boxing Gym, 2900 Beale Ave., Altoona, where youth meet with their mentor and “check in.”

The circle time is important, Witherspoon said.

“Asking, ‘how is your day going?’ is a big thing,” he said. “It’s that foundation with mental health. It’s an outlet for the youth to, with whatever they’re going through with stress, release it and gather their minds.”

After circle time comes physical fitness, a routine that includes stretching, jumping rope and boxing.

A consistent 14 or 15 youths are enrolled in the program at any one time, though the group sometimes has as many as 20 attendees.

Fitness a key

The program offers recreational opportunities like boxing, hiking, yoga and bowling and even includes various field trips that Witherspoon said creates an educational experience for the youth.

Vienna Shoup, 14, of Altoona, joined the program originally because of the fitness opportunities.

“I did boxing for a couple years, so then I came here,” Shoup said. “It’s fun and physically active, and we’ve all become close here.”

“You see the empowerment of the youth through fitness,” Witherspoon said. “It structures them through discipline. That’s very big. We keep them grounded, and we keep them accountable, too.”

Accountability is integral to the program, Witherspoon said. “And so is integrity. Look in the mirror — you are the power.”

The program uses whatever life experiences the youth have been through to help them become better in all aspects of their lives.

Kevin Thomas, the program’s treasurer, enjoys working with the youth, who refer to him as “coach.” Thomas said that watching the youth evolve is particularly rewarding.

“We try to expose them to different things to open their eyes a little,” Thomas said. “It’s a great program. It’s all positivity around here.”

Accountability and integrity, along with a positive attitude, resonates with the students, and, as a result, Witherspoon said he notices a difference in them as they progress through the program.

The program has had an impact on Chase Shaffer, 17, of Altoona, who said he appreciates the community it creates.

“My favorite part is learning more and more about each other and making new friends,” he said. Basically, he said, the group is “just having fun.”

For Eli Riling, 13, of Warriors Mark, the group provides an accepting space.

“Everyone here is nice and kind and we’re all friends,” Riling said. “It’s just fun doing all the different activities.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that fun came to a brief halt as the country began to shut down last year. Meetings and activities were put on hold from March to late summer 2020, Witherspoon said, but the group was able to return to normalcy by the fall.

As the group is back to a normal schedule and more people become vaccinated, it’s the perfect time to grow the program, Witherspoon said.

“We want to build our program not just in our community but in surrounding communities,” he said.

Faith Swanson, Riling’s mother, is glad she enrolled Riling and her daughter, Aliyah, 16.

“I’ve never met anyone quite like him,” Swanson said of Witherspoon. “He’s got a heart of gold. He wants to see kids succeed, especially kids with challenges.”

Swanson echoed her son’s sentiment about the program’s welcoming spirit and said she’s grateful that her kids have Witherspoon as a mentor.

“It’s inclusive here and no one is left out,” she said. “It’s given them someone of faith they can interact with.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

A closer look

More information about the nonprofit Leaders of Tomorrow can be found at the foundation’s website, leadersoftomorrow.foundation.

The group typically meets from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, although in the summer that is changed to Fridays only. There are some Saturday gatherings, namely for special outings or activities.

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