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I first met Chris Anani at a BBQ for Democracy event in January. He was deejaying at Ebenezer Baptist Church West in Athens, and the organizer, Marti Lifschin, boasted about the outreach Chris does around the local community.

Chris has lived in Athens for the past 11 years since he began his college career at the University of Georgia. Now, he’s an elementary school teacher who works with kids and teens in and out of school.

He created Students With Ambitions and Goals, or SWAG, in December 2019 as a way to help mentor kids and teens outside of the classroom.

SWAG helps them learn about real-life problems while instilling important values. Chris, the lone mentor of SWAG, helps eight kids ages 11 to 17. Keeping a small group allows him to build stronger relationships, he said. As a group, they do activities such as day trips to historical centers and giving food to the unhoused community.

SWAG in action

On April 8, Chris picked up eighth-graders Leyland Mayne and Alan Villafana. They grabbed food from a couple restaurants with help from UGA’s chapter of Omega Psi Phi, part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Then, they went downtown.

“What makes life worth living is the interactions and the connections that you make with people that you love and care about."

— Chris Anani

Chris met Leyland and Alan at the school where he teaches, J.J. Harris Elementary School. Leyland was in his class for the second half of the school year, and Alan was a student at J.J. Harris, but not in Chris’s class.

“Now, [Alan] and Leyland are like little brothers to me,” Chris said.

Serving food is one of many activities through which Chris teaches students to be grateful for what they have. Before arriving at their destination, Chris asked the boys why they were doing this.

“If it was you in that situation, you’d want someone to help you,” Leyland said.

In the car, Chris and the boys also practiced what they would say while passing out the food. Simple but meaningful questions rose from the back seat.

“I think, ‘How are you?’ would be good because they don’t get that that often,” Alan said.

After handing out several sandwiches, they made their way to Bigger Vision of Athens on North Avenue. The kids handed out food and had conversations with people. Words of gratitude touched the kids’ hearts.

At the end of the day of service, Leyland dozed off, his head resting against the car window. Even eighth graders can run out of energy.

A ‘sustainable impact’

Becoming a teacher is “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my whole life. I cannot be any happier,” Chris said.

Upon arriving at UGA, Chris searched for a sense of community. He initially found it by tutoring kids through the Athens Tutorial Program in 2011.

Chris said he wanted to be an inspirational role model for his students in the classroom and hoped to work with kids in a way that reached further than the standard 45-minute tutoring sessions outside of the classroom.

Chris asked himself, “How can I make a more sustainable impact on their life?”

Faith plays a role in what he does, but he said he doesn’t lecture the kids about religion. Chris uses his relationship with God to guide him and guide the children through him.

“I know that He’s called me overall to uplift people, and in particular the Black community. I’m just trying to figure out the different avenues of accomplishing that big life purpose,” Chris said.

Even though Chris stopped tutoring in 2016 after switching jobs within the county, he wanted to continue mentoring kids who needed it most — kids who needed extra guidance. SWAG was born.

The foundation of the mentoring program is spiritual mental health — teaching the mentees how to be their best selves. By bonding over meals and activities, Chris builds relationships with his mentees.

Chris also helps the mentees make connections to grow beyond their in-school education. When one of his mentees expressed an interest in business, Chris reached out to a friend in business and put them in touch.

However, his mentees are not the only ones learning from this experience. Two facets of his program stand out to Chris: watching the older mentees give advice to the younger mentees and seeing the resilience of the kids.

“What makes life worth living is the interactions and the connections that you make with people that you love and care about,” he said.