SALT LAKE CITY — When James Neal moved to Utah from Florida in 2002 with his mother and grandmother, he was a young man in need of mentors — and he found them.
Neal, 16, has joined the Utah Alpha Beaus, a mentoring group started by Utah residents who belong to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Utah chapter. The group serves African-American boys ages 14 to 18.
"All of these mentors are like a father to me because I never had a father figure," he said. "I made a brotherhood with about five other Beaus."
Neal said he grew up believing his father had died.
"(My mother) told me he was sick and died," he said. But just two years ago, he learned the truth.
"She was really upset about me asking," Neal said. "She said he had abused her."
That is why belonging to the group Alpha Beaus is important to him.
"There aren't that many African-Americans in my school. I think there are only three," he said. "So this really helps me keep my African-American culture inside of me."
The Alpha Beaus aim to instill in African-American teens a sense of cultural pride, teach leadership skills and provide role models.
"There were conversations about how we could create a safe space for African-American males that were in high school, to get cultural validation," said Bryan Hotchkins, Alpha Beaus program chairman. "And they'd be allowed to express themselves in ways that we (as a culture) deem as normal, and where they would be accepted in their expression."
Hotchkins started the program with other members of Alpha Phi Alpha, an African-American fraternity. He said the men in the Utah chapter saw a need to reach out to the young African-American teens in Utah.
Hotchkins said the group aims to help the boys navigate life in a predominantly white, Mormon culture. One goal is to teach the boys to learn about different cultures so they can find their culture and sense of self-worth.
"There are discussions about how culture is seen, how culture is expressed, and how culture is validated," Hotchkins said.
The mentors are passing down information given to them by their fathers about cultural identity as young African-American males, something Hotchkins said tends to be missing in some transracial homes or homes with single mothers.
"If I adopt a child who is Chinese, I can only teach him about being African-American because that is my experience," Hotchkins said. "Because I have lived the experiences of an African-American man, I can teach African-American boys about those experiences."
He acknowledges that the boys may never have the same experiences that he has had.
"But I can give them the cultural cues to be able to identify language that is spoken to them," Hotchkins explained.
At least one mentor in Alpha Beaus was raised by a single mother — Roderic Land, Alpha Phi Alpha Utah Chapter president. He said it is important for the young men to understand the "lens by which they are seen" in society.
Land said media images tend to stereotype African-American males. Instead of allowing the media to define African-American men, the mentors will serve as role models.
"Even with the males that we're mentoring, some of them tend to subscribe to the ideas that they see in the media," Land said. "But it's up to us as men to rectify that situation and show them that there are other ways of being other than what you see on the videos and in the movies."
Hotchkins and Land also work to teach the boys leadership skills by guiding them as they organize activities throughout the year. The Alpha Beaus works with other groups in the community to help the boys have cross-cultural experiences.
"We want to build upon the things that their parents have given and instilled within them to help them become successful young men," Land said.
As part of that success, the mentors hope to set a precedence for excellence.
"It is my hope that expectations will be raised for African-American males and that we can exceed any expectation that is put upon us," Hotchkins said.
Neal said he's grateful to have found a home away from home.
"It creates lifelong bonds that won't be broken, ever, and I just thank God for it," he said.