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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

COMMENTARY

Mentors can make all the difference

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

I went to Pickett Elementary School in Toledo recently to see for myself a program called “Creating Young Readers” in action. The effort is a mentoring program in which volunteers try to help elementary school children improve their reading skills.

The volunteers do not teach reading but are there to augment reading skills. The approach used is called “dialogical reading.” The mentor helps the student with rhymes and sounding out words but also with story context, both within the book and outside of it. Tutors talk to the kids about what is on the cover and what it makes them think about.

I was invited by volunteer Ed Weber, a retired Toledo attorney and former Republican congressman. In his classroom, I met another volunteer, Hank Douglas. Mr. Weber has been doing this for about a year. Mr. Douglas has been doing it for about five years. They were working with first graders.

I came away inspired by these two older gentlemen and their charges.

Pickett is in an economically disadvantaged and challenged central-city neighborhood. But the school has pride — the building is immaculate; the teachers are upbeat and focused. The children I saw were beautiful kids, and they were well mannered and impeccably dressed. One little girl had several red ribbons in her hair that must have taken her mother much time and effort to fix. The kids did not seem to view this tutoring as a chore or a punishment. They enjoyed the one-on-one attention. They called Mr. Weber “Uncle Ed,” and they met my gaze and shook my hand.

The two tutors? I could not help but think: Not every old white guy is home cursing at the TV. Some are giving back and changing lives. Indeed, as these two men are the first to say, they are changing their own lives.

Romules Durant said to me a couple weeks ago that the day has long passed when urban schools can be just schools. It’s true. Today, they must be intervening institutions that also help parents with job searches and GEDs; that help to clothe and feed poor kids; and that help kids compensate for what might not be easy to find at home — maybe books; maybe instruction in how to dribble a basketball or throw a baseball; maybe just stability.

I suppose the ultimate in an intervening institution is a military-style academy for urban boys in Oakland, Calif. Founded by then-Mayor Jerry Brown, it is still struggling in the test-score department. But it’s working. And it does more than keep young urban men off the street. It gives them discipline and self-respect.

It also gives them options: college or the military.

The Oakland Military Institute was preceded, of course, by Boys Town, which is still going strong. This is a school that must also be a parent. Its care is continuous. The idea is that kids can be pulled back from the precipice by practical forms of assistance, as well as by the helping hands of mentors.

Too many Americans think otherwise. I used to have a friend with whom I argued about the efficacy of intervention. He wrote off every kid whose mother was ever on crack or whose father was ever in jail. He was wrong.

I know this. I know it from my own life. Although I had wonderful parents and was never disadvantaged in any way, or a druggie, or a delinquent, I was a little lost in high school and needed a lifeline. I was thrown one by a Catholic priest — my high school Latin teacher. He made a huge difference in my life. He “saved” me in a sense — giving me tools to deal with life and find courage within myself. I am still in touch with him today.

Intervening institutions. And persons. There are many mentoring and tutoring programs in Toledo. In fact they need volunteers at Pickett. If you have the time and inclination to give back, you could change, or even save, a life.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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