- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The 26 retired professional men who are school mentors for Washington DC Experience Corps walk a very elastic line in their relationship with young boys at risk.

The men — all volunteers — are at various times counselors, advisers, coaches, career guides, role models and friends. But under no circumstances does the organization want them to act as substitute fathers, even when the boys come from homes where fathers are not present or seldom appear.

“My daughter is 30 years old, and I could imagine how I would feel if somebody tried to step in as surrogate,” says Ron Montague, 61, a retired air traffic controller who is mentoring for the second year at Webb Elementary School in Northeast.

Experience Corps also asks that the mentor and mentored child not be alone together, but no problems ever have developed in his experience, he says. Awareness is everything, he points out.

“It’s a tricky road, especially in today’s environment, and kids today are so smart. You can’t get to play those electronic games by being dumb,” Mr. Montague says. “Some of their energies may be channeled in the wrong direction, but they are smart on certain things. I remember when I was young, playing Mom and Dad against one another. Parents have to be aware this stuff goes on.”

“Mentoring is not being a parent, because a parent is something different,” says Andrew “Andy” Johnson, 66, a retired special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who has been with the program since 1999. “I like to start where the child is. I don’t try to put my values on them, but hopefully from how I act and the things we talk about, they will know where I stand. Like your word is your bond, and being a leader instead of a follower. … They will tell you anything once you have their trust.”

One of the “smartest kids” he worked with, he says, talked about the habit of stealing cars. “At the end of the term he promised me he wouldn’t steal any more cars. This was an 11- or 12-year-old kid. He now is in high school, and every time I see him I ask him about that. He says he is doing well, hoping to graduate from high school.”

Mr. Montague is mentoring a different child this year but has kept in touch with his first charge, Timothy Miles, a student at Harris Junior High School who is one of six sons in a family headed by the mother. Anthonie Miles, 11, another of her sons, has been paired this year with mentor Bob Smith, formerly the owner of an auto repair shop.

“His father is not in his life, so it was good for him to have a male mentor,” says his mother, Margaret Miles.

“It shocked me when I came here,” Mr. Smith says. “I didn’t expect to find a kid with so much enthusiasm and attention. He really wants to learn something.”

Young Anthonie had questioned him about how automobiles work and asked about trumpet lessons. So, Mr. Smith, a one-time bugler, hopes to be able to pay for Anthonie to have trumpet lessons — acknowledging that his mother would be responsible for driving him there.

Nor are mentors strictly tutors, although they often assist with homework. Tutoring is a separate activity under Experience Corps, the community service program for older Americans funded by government in partnership with nonprofit organizations such as AARP.

Volunteers attended a training session in October directed by a professional trainer, a former Baltimore city schoolteacher, before meeting and being matched with children largely chosen by school counselors. Matches are made as much as possible on mutual interests of child and man. This year’s volunteers include the pastor of a local church and several retired District police officers. Some group field trips are planned — possibly a visit to the African-American History Museum in Baltimore and another to the Marine base at Quantico — in addition to weekly after-school meetings. Summer meetings will take place in school at times to be arranged.

Mentors bear a heavy burden, committing to 1 hours a week or more for a full year to help on a one-to-one basis with the social, emotional and academic development of students from three inner-city District elementary schools. While studies show that mentoring matters, especially in fourth to sixth grades, mentors’ influence can be difficult to chart.

It is critically important for the mentors to show up at the appointed time and place, says Mr. Montague. “To live up to your word,” he says, the way the mentored children are expected to when they sign — in ink, because pencil marks can be erased — an agreement to attend regularly.

Such is the need that some mentors oversee two students on two different days and even volunteer as classroom assistants. They keep journals, if only to help with required reports for underwriters such as the U.S. Department of Education.

Experiences can be as frustrating as they are personally fulfilling. Gratification often comes when it is least expected, in ways bureaucratic accounting can’t always properly define.

“Kids watch mentors and mentors watch kids. I don’t think you can measure when you are involved in it,” says Mr. Montague, adding that “with children it is abstract. At one point [last year], I wasn’t sure I was getting through. He would talk to me, but after-school activities kept him busy. Then it came out that his teacher told me he turned down going to football because he would rather come upstairs with me, and I didn’t know that. It is one of those things that hits you and you think, ‘Wow.’”

He explains his motive for signing up with Experience Corps as: “I really think there is a little bit of teacher in all of us.” He praises program officials for the thoroughness of their approach. “I have been fortunate. I think of people who have helped me, both black and white. I think it makes people feel good to give back. It doesn’t make a difference what age level or group.”

“Frankly, it is going to be a learning experience for me,” says Keith Kramer, one of the program’s few white mentors. He is now in real estate part time, having retired from IBM sales, where he says he “spent my whole career helping wealthy make a lot more money. They are nice people, but I felt I should reach out more. … I just wanted to help the community, and one person individually.”

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