Recruiting role models

Mentors: A Howard County program connects local employees with students having trouble in school.

March 13, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jason Pagano had to stay after school Thursday, but he wasn't complaining. It was perfect weather for launch day. Jason and his co-pilot sat in the wood shop at Oakland Mills Middle School, making final checks on the rocket that they built from scratch.

Many afternoons, Jason, 11, is bored and lonely. But once a week, he spends time with his mentor and co-pilot, Jason Abell.

"I have fun," the boy said. "We make jokes and laugh."

Jason and Abell, who works for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, met through the Promise to Keep: Mentoring Resource Center. A part of Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland, the program is designed to help Howard County students with academic or behavior problems.

Until Promise to Keep started mentoring efforts in county schools, many of the schools ran their own programs. Promise to Keep acts as an umbrella group for schools, including those that need help starting a mentoring program. The Horizon Foundation of Columbia and Constellation Energy Group fund the program.

Keri Hyde has been coordinator of the program, which began in 1999, for more than a year. "The biggest challenge is recruiting people," she said.

Looking for volunteers, Promise to Keep contacted businesses last year. Companies such as BGE Home Products and Wells Fargo Home Mortgage give "work-release" time to employees who are mentors. Fifty-one mentors help students in nine schools.

Carl Fischer, alternative education coordinator at Oakland Mills Middle School, is that school's contact for Promise to Keep.

"Mentoring fulfills a lot of different needs," he said. "It provides a role model for the student. It also provides an additional adult in the child's life. It's really a multifaceted relationship they have with the kids."

When Jason and his mentor met at the beginning of the school year, they worked on math. Their relationship developed as they talked about their weekends, and ultimately designed and built a rocket together.

Although at first he found it difficult to take time off from work, Abell found it easier as he got to know Jason. "I probably get more out of it than he does," Abell said. "I look forward to it."

Near them in the wood shop, Orlando Goncalves, 13, and his mentor, Jerry Gettleman of Columbia, worked on a remote-controlled car. Gettleman pointed out that the project is not just for fun. He and Orlando had to design the car, use math to figure out gear ratios, and problem-solve as the engine failed to start.

Orlando said his mentor helped him improve in school.

"Before, I used to get mostly C's. Sometimes, we'll study for a test or do my homework. Now I'm doing my homework at home and getting A's," freeing him to work on projects with Gettleman, he said.

"The people who mentor are just remarkable," Hyde said. "The children test whether the mentor is going to stay with it."

That testing period can be a challenge for volunteers, as Janice Barnes discovered. She had the day off from work, but still arrived to mentor. The girl she works with didn't show up.

"I just try to be consistent with her, to let her know that I'm going to be here every week," said Barnes, who works for BGE Home. She said that she has had a hard time getting her partner to open up, but she is not upset. "Some people don't have an older sister or older brother," Barnes said, and she enjoys filling that role.

When they stick to the relationship, Hyde thinks that mentors can make a difference in youths' lives.

"There's an improvement in behavior. They're less likely to get into a fight or have referrals to the office. You see these [behavioral] results more quickly than the academic," she said.

The mentors benefit, too. "I wanted to give something back, and I didn't know what that something was," said Abell, of Elkridge.

When his company joined the Promise to Keep program, he knew this was how he wanted to volunteer. "Sometimes I feel like a kid myself, and to hang out with Jason is pretty fun," Abell said.

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