Prince James Story
Sigma Beta Xi (SBX) Youth and Family Services is a community-based organization that has served the Inland Empire by mentoring middle and high school children for over two decades.
Ernest Rhone IV was a Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity member, a historically Black fraternity founded by Howard University students in 1914. Brotherhood, community, and service are core values that Rhone learned from his fraternity and that he wanted to incorporate into a community-based organization.
Rhone started SBX Youth and Family Services in 1998 at Rialto High School, where he was a history teacher for 26 years. He identified a group of young men and started the on-campus club. The following year, a group of young ladies joined the SBX program.
Berenice Zuniga, co-CEO of SBX, was part of the first group of ladies to join the organization.
“My parents migrated here from Mexico, and being [a] first-gen [student] in the area that was middle class was really hard,” Zuniga said. “I didn’t feel a sense of belonging at home or school.”
As a high school junior, Zuniga joined the organization as a mentee seeking guidance and community.
Students learned about business, how to fundraise, got involved in politics, and engaged in community service projects like starting a food pantry, volunteering at homeless shelters, or singing Christmas carols at retirement homes.
“What was unique at the time is we were all sisters and brothers of the organization, but we all look different, and we all have different walks of life. However, we were all really united in our efforts to serve the community,” Zuniga explained.
When she graduated from high school, Zuniga and other club members started having conversations about how they could replicate what was taught in high school to the next generation of students, and give other young people an opportunity to be part of a community-centered organization.
In 2015, Zuniga returned to the organization as an employee and started working with their first cohort of female middle school students. Since then, SBX has served up to 500 young people in a school year. Roughly 60% of the students are female.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, SBX staff started brainstorming how to serve their students better.
“While we were serving them as mentors, we couldn’t really figure out how to eliminate the other barriers, whether it was a lack of finances or resources in the home, [or] mental health needs,” Zuniga said.
Dahana Lopez is one of the youth leaders at SBX. She joined the program in 2020. At the time, her family already had a case with child protective services because of domestic violence in the household, which had a detrimental impact on her mentally.
“I put up a masculine barrier to protect the feminine side of me because of how many times I felt hurt, and then adding the stress of not being able to go back to school [which] was the only place where I could be me,” Lopez said. “It just destroyed me internally.”
Lopez said having an SBX mentor is similar to having another friend to talk to who doesn’t tell her what to do, but asks the right questions to guide her so she can learn how to solve problems.
“I’ve seen a lot of emotional improvement in myself,” shared Lopez.
“I used to be tough or want to be hard in school and just fight everyone. When I got integrated back into high school after the pandemic, I was back on top of my grades, and I continued [participating in] SBX.”
Lopez added that SBX has been a “blessing” for her because her family was also a part of the rapid rehousing program SBX provides.
She is now attending Moreno Valley Community College and studying political science.
Expanding the program
SBX began implementing a host of new initiatives such as a program for fathers who are incarcerated or absent parents, a tax preparation program that provides free tax services, and asthma mitigation programs in Black and brown communities to address poor air quality and environmental injustice in the Inland Empire.
SBX purchased their first housing project in Moreno Valley a few years ago, and the construction should start next month. The accommodation will house up to 24 people, including foster children and single mothers.
“The only thing that they have to worry about is creating sustainability and autonomy, and when they’re ready to transition into their community, they can do that safely without an 18-month restriction,” according to Zuniga.
Through a partnership with Moreno Valley College, SBX has created a pathway for these individuals to pursue higher learning.
SBX is also in communication with Cal Baptist University to provide social services, so mental health interns will be able to work with them alongside case managers.
For decades, SBX has been a stable resource for children and families in the Inland Empire who are looking for a positive community to join or seeking a safe space.
“We don’t ever want young people to be victimized by their circumstances,” Zuniga said. “I get that you didn’t get the things that you deserved from people [who] were supposed to be there for you, but don’t let that stop you from living your purpose.”
SBX has mentored over 1,000 students and recorded over 39,000 hours of mentoring kids.
“You can choose someone to be your family, and this is a family of choice,” Zuniga proclaimed.
SBX now mentors students in Moreno Valley, Jurupa Valley, Hemet, San Jacinto, Rialto, and they are entering their second year of the program in Palmdale.
They hope to build on their progress of creating young leaders in the community and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.