It's orientation week at William Jessup University, but instead of settling into dorm life, Semaj Horace was painting the window screens of a Del Paso Heights building Monday.
"I've been helped a lot, and I feel like I'm paying back a debt," said Horace, 18, of North Highlands as he rolled tan paint on a screen lying on the pavement.
He was among 10 students assigned to Shoulder to Shoulder a program that mentors fatherless boys in the greater Sacramento area for William Jessup's Community Service Day, part of freshman orientation.
Their task: paint the exterior walls and window screens of the program's administrative offices in Del Paso Heights.
For Horace, as well as Isaiah Mathews, 18, of Del Paso Heights, the assignment is particularly significant because Shoulder to Shoulder changed their lives.
"I always feel this is home," said Mathews, who helped put the painted window screens back up Monday.
Shoulder to Shoulder was founded by Bill Coibion in 1996 to "encourage and engage men to be strong leaders in the home, church and community."
There were programs to strengthen families and marriages, but in 2007, the organization decided to focus on mentoring boys growing up without fathers.
This year, all 12 of the first class of the mentorship program graduated from high school. Six went to college, two joined the military and four found jobs.
So far, a total of 175 boys have participated in Shoulder to Shoulder, including 34 who currently attend Grant High School.
Recently, the program moved to its current site, which belongs to the Twin Rivers Unified School District.
"It feels exhilarating to see this," Coibion said, referring to the return of Horace and Mathews on Monday. "These kids worked hard for six years to help this community."
Horace and Mathews had troubled lives before joining the program.
Horace was born in Oakland and went to different schools for much of his academic life, as his mom and two sisters moved constantly. He said his father was largely absent.
As a result of moving around, he said, he didn't make many friends, and he didn't do well in school.
"I had 16 suspensions in one year," Horace recalled. "I had a lot of fights."
The family moved to Del Paso Heights in 2006, but Horace found he couldn't adapt and was expelled from school in sixth grade.
But in seventh grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School, a physical education teacher referred him to Shoulder to Shoulder, which was then based at the school. The lure was that he was told he could play video games if he joined.
"I was never judged when I came here," he said.
"You are not judged for what you did or what you do. They would stand by me anyway."
Horace said he learned there was a different way to live. "I didn't realize what I was missing," he said.
Horace also learned to manage his anger and aspired to become a leader.
"If I want to lead, I have to learn to follow," he said. "They taught me to understand (others) before I can be understood."
He also said that he's since learned to forgive his father for not being there for him, and he now keeps in touch with him.
"I want to have a family and be the father that I never had," he said.
The program also inspired him to go to college, and he picked William Jessup because of its Christian values.
He plans to study marketing and accounting there and to play basketball next year.
Mathews bounced between receiving homes and foster care while growing up.
He said his mother was a drug addict and his father was in and out of prison. Mathews had bad grades in school and was on the verge of dropping out.
But in 2005, his mother got clean through a program at Calvary Christian Center.
"Even though my mom changed, I still had a grudge," Mathews recalled.
But he went to church with his mother, and someone there referred him to Shoulder to Shoulder.
"I wanted to see change in my life that I saw for my mom," he said.
Mathews said he plans to study visual arts and become a graphic artist. He said he was surprised that he was put on the team to volunteer at Shoulder to Shoulder for Community Service Day, but he was all for it.
"It's great," he said. "I get to educate the other students (about the program) and it's for a good cause."
For more information on Shoulder to Shoulder, go to www.teamsts.org or call (916) 285-5422.
Call The Bee's Tillie Fong, (916) 321-1006.