What do you get when you combine a horse ranch in Compton, a loving caretaker and a group of eager kids?
In a word: Awesome.
That was the conclusion of the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, a loose-knit group of budding philanthropists who awarded a "micro-genius grant" to Mayisha Akbar, the driving force behind the Compton Jr. Posse, a respite for youth in the heart of South LA's gang territory.
"Rarely do we come to a consensus on anything," said Michael Francesconi, a member of the foundation's LA chapter. "But we were all hell-bent on Mayisha. Her concept in general is killer. It provides leadership, pride and self-esteem."
The 1 1/2-acre ranch is nestled behind an average-looking street, with its 15 horses joined nearly every day by their primary caretakers: children.
Between 3 to 4 p.m., as soon as they get out of school, students begin to appear. They greet one another and the horses, pull their boots, pull out their brushes and saddle up.
"We're in competition with the gangs, because they're going after our kids," said Akbar, 58, the posse's founder and executive director. "We have to provide them with the same things gangs do."
In return for joining the posse, her beneficiaries have to hold up their end of the bargain. If they want to continue to ride, they must meet certain expectations: get good grades, do their fill of farm chores and stay out of trouble.
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Everything from gear to competition costs is funded by Akbar and any sponsors and donations she can wrangle.
Akbar estimates that 5,000 children have passed through her backyard, whether for one day on a field trip or a more extended stay. Many have gone on to college, trips to France, apprenticeships in Virginia, and have adopted a "pay it forward" mentality, often returning to volunteer.
Akbar described a recent conversation with one of her former riders, a young man who is now enrolled in culinary school. He told Akbar, "If it weren't for you, Mayisha, I'd be in a gang." He's catered several Posse events.
One longtime posse regular is Akbar's granddaughter, 11-year-old Khalia, who has been riding since she was 2 and who considers herself a sort of grandmother's helper.
"I have more very, very, very lots of training," she said. "We help each other with things we need help with."
Akbar is currently working to transform the posse into a corporation. A new part-time salary will allow her to dedicate more time to soliciting donations and sponsors. And on May 21, the posse will host its fourth annual fundraiser at the California Yacht Club. Akbar's goal is to raise $1.3 million in three years.
Akbar said she plans to put the $1,000 Awesome grant toward horse show competition fees.
On Thursday afternoon Francesconi, unceremoniously and without his own posse in tow, presented Akbar with her grant via a white, standard-sized envelope with the word "Awesome" scribbled inside a heart.
"That's awesome," Akbar said.