James Williams waited, appraising the activity around him but not engaged in it. Like the final game piece in a chess match, he waited.
For seven years, Williams has been a volunteer with My Mentor My Friend. The program, funded in part by United Way of Greater Cleveland through Greater Cleveland Volunteers, provides weekly one-on-one adult support for students at lunchtime throughout the school year. The organization’s Coordinator, Carol Hasek, said mentor interactions result in improved behavior, greater self-confidence and increased interest in school. The initiative serves Mound, Denison, Wilson and Charles W. Eliot schools.
On a recent Wednesday, mentors met with their students in the Mound art room, a high-ceiling, brightly lit space with posters of masterpieces of painting and architecture mingling with masterpieces of student artwork on the walls. Students bring their lunches and interact with mentors through conversations, games and reviewing schoolwork.
Williams waited in silence, alone, as the session proceeded.
A table away, mentor Rasheedah Najieb said her involvement is a means to “pay it back – and forward.”
“I am a mentor because I had a mentor who was a great help to me; she guided me through college and helped me be a better student,” Najieb said. “She instilled in me that once you have a mentor, you should become one.”
Her mentor student, fourth grader Lanazia Belcher, said, “We do fun activities and talk about our week and how school is going. I am learning and sharing.”
Larry Jemison has been a mentor for four years.
“We talk about how he is doing in school, how to get along further in school and how to not get involved with the wrong crowd,” he said.
Fourth grader Rahim Stubblefield is clearly respectful and attentative to Jemsion.
“I look forward to the seeing my mentor,” the young man said. “We talk about my behavior and how I am doing in school. We have good conversations I keep in mind all week.”
While some mentors are retirees like Jemison, there are also younger people who volunteer for the program.
Jenna Gaunter said she was looking for a way to supplement her job.
“This is a way to contribute and interact. I really like kids and this opportunity jumped out at me,”she said.
Her student, fourth grader Amya Smith, shyly talked about the experience.
“We talk about my school days, how things are at home. It’s nice to have someone to share things with,” she said.
And still, alone at his table, Williams waited.
Darlene Rota mentored Jillian Howard all through fourth grade last year and is now paired with her for this school year.
“I mentor to make a difference in a child’s life. We make crafts for class and talk about school,” Rota said, adding it was “very hard” to not be in touch with Howard during the summer.
For her part, Howard said she looks forward to her mentor’s visit all week.
“We talk about school and math. I look forward to this time,” she said.
Mentor Carol Durgan said, “I know the value of providing a role model. We look at what the student is studying and relate it to other topics.”
Her student, fifth grader Jeralyne Amparo, seemed slightly put out by the interviewer and photographer’s intrusion, wanting to take all the time she could with Durgan.
“We focus on school lessons, and mix up what we talk about. It makes math and science fun,” the student said.
Waiting in silence
While each table of paired mentor and student buzzed with conversation, the stately gentleman sat at his table alone, waiting in silence.
James Williams has been a mentor for seven years.
“I am a mentor because I can assist a child with a relationship they don’t have; a father, maybe a mother,” he said. “Filling that void is important. You bond with the child and build a strong relationship. They trust you and can share with you. I try to get them talking about current events and what is happening in the world. And I teach them chess or backgammon.
“These kids see a lot of folks running around who are not good role models. I try to keep them looking out for that, and to think about what they might want to be years from now.”
But his current assigned student refuses to come to the sessions. Williams said the young man has ignored his mother’s and teacher’s entreaties to participate in the program.
Yet every scheduled day, Williams goes to the class to see the young man and make sure he knows he is there, then goes to the meeting area to wait out the lunch period alone, his chess and backgammon boards untouched.
“Even if he never comes down, he will know I am here for him,” Williams said. “He will know I am waiting.
“Every time I see him, I don’t push him. I smile and tell him, I’ll be back.’”
If the young man continues to decline to be in the program, Williams will eventually be paired with another student. But for now, he waits with the patience of a champion chess player, knowing that the end game does not have to be decided by the opening move.
To volunteer for My Mentor My Friend, contact Carol Hasek at (216) 391-9500 ext. 125 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.