A very special friendship
School mentors, students celebrated at annual Christmas breakfast
By Meg Ferrante
In the beginning, the letters were in crayon, with a few sweet words. You are my sunshine. My rain in drought.
As years passed, the words matured. You cheer me up in ways I can’t describe. It’s like I’m in a dark room and when you come in, it’s so bright. I guess you must be my angel.
Recounting this year’s Christmas thank you, which 11th grader Dorcelyn Ross delivered to her mentor, Julie Vice, at the annual Mentor Breakfast, Vice can hardly choke out the words. I wish I could buy you the most wonderful gift. But I reach into my pocket and it’s empty. Then I remember that the greatest gift isn’t material. It can’t be bought. It’s my love, and you have that. You’ll always have that.
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Kathy Lehman is waiting in the doorway of The James Madison Conference Center before the annual Mentor Breakfast, straining her neck to find “her boys” in the crowd of elementary and high school students piling off their buses and pouring down the stairs from Town 220.
“It’s a great program,” she says, her eyes never leaving the incoming children. “My husband signed on to do it and then I’ve just joined in... It’s been a really enriching experience for us. We love those boys and feel like they’re family. We hope they feel that way about us, too.”
There’s no sign of his 10-year-old brother, but just then, the 14-year-old “mentee” arrives. He smiles shyly, puts his hand out to her for a shake.
“What’s this handshake business?” Lehman asks, folding him in to a big hug.
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Pride. Ed Latham radiates it when talking about the mentor program. How he watched one graduate and go on to become a successful business owner. How he has learned what great kids his two 7th graders are just by having lunch, shooting baskets with them. How he has learned a lot about himself. It’s all but perfect. Except. “Look around the room,” he says, pointing to the crowded tables at the Mentor Breakfast. “We need more male mentors. This place could be three times as full.”
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Mentors and their student mentees turned out in multitudes for the annual Mentor Breakfast, an anticipated tradition; a chance to celebrate the program, the year’s accomplishments and the holiday season all at the same time. The group enjoyed entertainment from the middle school jazz band and the high school choir. The meal was prepared by School Nutrition Director Phyllis Martin and her talented food services team. Held at The James Madison Conference Center—a change from the usual Ritz Carlton venue—plates were still heaped high and smiles were never in short supply.
High school principal Mark Wilson said that despite the challenges of the current economic climate, he was proud of how everything came together for the breakfast. “It took a good effort from the community to keep it going, rather than let it go away,” Wilson said. “Just now, when we needed more chairs, ten people formed a bucket brigade to carry those down from the stage quickly so people could eat. That’s the best metaphor for everyone working together to make this happen.”
Stacy Waldron, a counselor at the elementary school, said that the breakfast epitomized the true meaning of the season and the program—celebrating one another. “Our ‘#1 Small Town in America’ is doing it again,” she said. From Dr. Wilson’s scramble to find a new location; to the school system planning and providing the food; to Morgan County High School students helping with set up, decorations and clean up; to the mentors and children themselves… “It just makes me smile when an entire community comes together for the greater good. We are so blessed,” Waldron said.
The mentor program started at the elementary school more than a decade ago when now-retired counselor Denny Ewing and one of the program’s first mentors, Kevin Smith of Pennington Seed, heard how the program was making a difference for at-risk and special needs children in other school systems.
“It started out very small, just to see if it would work,” Ewing said. The program moved to the other schools as word spread and the students with mentors moved up.
Mentors typically volunteer 30 minutes to an hour a week with their students, often during part of lunch or recess to hang out, play, read, do crafts or just talk. There are currently over 100 adults and two dozen high school students mentoring in the school system but a long waiting-list of children needing mentors.
“There are always children that need a little extra TLC,” Ewing said.
Margaret Caldwell has been mentor for seven years to a now high school senior. “Mentors are an important part of how a school can work with all of their resources to approach a problem,” Caldwell said, mentioning that the children outnumber the available volunteer adults. “There is such a crying need for mentors. It’s something you can do that’s seemingly not a big thing, but really can be. There’s no fanfare, but it’s a way to reach another human being on a very basic level.”
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Before the mentor program was officially even sanctioned at the primary school, Vice took Ross under her wing as a 2nd grader. In the classroom to help several students with reading, Vice could see she was “too smart to be acting the way she was acting.”
Somewhere along the way, the responsibility became a relationship. “We’ve kept doing it because we both wanted to,” Vice said. Now Ross spends Wednesdays after school at the Vice’s house, cooking, doing homework, making crafts, sometimes watching Oprah. She’s right at home with Vice’s 17 and 15 year old girls. “I’m like her middle daughter,” Ross said.
Vice stressed that Ross comes from a great family—her mother is a force to be reckoned with; her dad, Michael, and brother Bryant are mentors too—but she has been someone else Ross can be accountable to. And their weekly meetings have given Ross something to strive for. “I wanted her to see that good behavior brings good things,” Vice said.
“Some people say usually bad kids get a mentor,” Ross said. “It could be someone that just needs extra attention. Maybe they’re just not being challenged. A mentor can be someone other than family to just be there for them sometimes.”
Many in the program stressed that mentors are no substitute for a parent, but rather another adult the child can turn to. “The mentoring program offers our students their own special individual time with a grown-up friend. These wonderful relationships last over the student's school career and have proven to be just as beneficial to the adults as to the children," said Sarah Burbach, Assistant Superintendent, Student Support and Community Relations.
Going from mentorship to friendship, Ross and Vice have certainly shown this to be the case.
“We talk about a lot,” Ross said. “We share the same views, like being a Christian, we talk about that. We talk about school, what I want to do in the future.”
And it appears from one of her recent thank-you notes that their relationship will last a lot longer than her Morgan County school years.
I hope we’re together always until I go to college. And when I go to college, I’ll call you. You always make a difference.
Profiles in Courage
Mentors make time in their busy days to change lives
Mentor for two years to a 3rd grade girl, one year to a 2nd grader.
Why she’s a mentor: “I’m able to stay home, so I feel I need to give back.”
Favorite activities: helping the girls make crafts: placemats, frames, cards, gifts for the family. “They look forward to it. They see me every week so it’s a constant in their lives. That’s really what they need.”
Mentor for six years. Past mentee Ben Patel now owns Pro Cleaners. Now mentoring two 7th graders, Chris and Trent. It’s easy: “We talk about what’s going on, talk about grades. The primary goal is to keep them out of trouble. They’re great kids.”
Best part: “Anybody who tells you they don’t get anything out of this for themselves isn’t telling the truth. We get as much out it as they do. You develop real friendships. I like to say, ‘He doesn’t need a mentor, I need a mentee.’”
Mentor to 6th grader, Dante Vestal, since 1st grade.
Multi-tasking: Baddour needed to be at the school for other volunteer activities, so she involved Vestal. “In elementary school, Dante always helped me stamp, count and deliver [the Humane Society’s] Kind News.”
Growing together: They’ll be building on that elementary school experience—and Baddour will be able to continue multi-tasking—by making a Humane Society bulletin board together for the middle school.
Mentor since 1999. Local record-breaker with 11 mentees, all from one extended family. Comes from a family of nine kids. Empty nester.
“I needed to fill my nest and I have. I’m going to quit with a dozen. I love it. I love these children, I’ve gotten to know their families, parents, grandparents and great grandparents, I’m very embroiled in their life. It takes a village to raise a child and the village has become together on behalf of all these children.”
Hardest part: Tricky scheduling. Johnston has to work her get-togethers in to just three days due to other volunteer commitments and a weekly trek to the CDC where she does consulting work.
Best story: Her longest-standing mentee is shy and tends to get lost in the crowd. He has struggled mightly in school and Johnston has been able to go to bat for him, making his teachers aware of his introverted personality and of their mentor relationship. He has since gotten the special privilege of raising the flag at the middle school and in time, two teachers have taken an interest in supporting him, boosting his self-esteem. He won the most improved student at the end of 7th grade.