Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha. I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.
A Mentoring We Will Go
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.
Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot. The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.
This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.
It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.
After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.
The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.
“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.
“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that. Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”
Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.
Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.
Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.
All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.
This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.
A Method to Mentoring
The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.
Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.
Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.
Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.
“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s
Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.
“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”
Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.
Doing the Right Thing
Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”
She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.
“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”
Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother. Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”
In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman. No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.
Reaching Out and Giving In
Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”
Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.
Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”
Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”
Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”
Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.
When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”
Trial and Error
Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”
Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.
Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”
Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”
Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.
Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”
Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”
Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.
“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”
“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”
Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.
“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”
But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.
That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”
The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”
There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”
Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”
Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”
Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”
Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”
He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.
“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out. Their hearts are so big.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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