Mentoring: Changing Lives One Child at a Time by Val Cavalheri

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January is National Mentoring Month. It is a time to recognize and celebrate the positive effects that mentoring can have on our youth. Talbot Mentors is proud to be an active advocate to Talbot County kids to ensure that they have the opportunity to mature into engaged and productive members of their communities. Last year, mentees attended summer camps and pizza parties, took trips to the zoo and museums, went bowling and ice skating, and participated in programs that were made possible through the contributions of corporate partners, foundations, and individual donations.

Although these programs are essential and expose a child to experiences they may not always have the opportunity to, it is what happens when a mentor and a child spend time together that is life-changing. Sometimes for both of them.

We want to highlight two Talbot Mentor stars from the over 100 mentors currently matched with a child in need.

Harriett Downes-Slaughter with Anna

Harriett Downes-Slaughter had been an Elementary school teacher who, together with her husband, also ran Attractions magazine. After her husband’s death a year and a half ago, the self-described ‘busy, busy, busy’ person found herself with a lot of free time. In July of this year she attended a Talbot Mentors Infosession, filled out the necessary paperwork and within a month was matched to 10-year-old Anna.

“My grandkids don’t need me to do silly things with them anymore,” says Harriett. “Anna, however, is a prime age for some of the fun things I like to do on weekends, such as going to carnivals and Talbot County Fair.” However, what Harriett enjoys most is doing things that Anna, growing up with a single mom with two jobs, has never done before. Simple things like baking cookies, making applesauce, carving a pumpkin, going to Michael’s Craft Stores, or having chicken nuggets at Chick-fil-A.

In the process, Harriett also gets to put her skills to work. “I wanted to make a difference,” Harriett says. “Since I’ve been a teacher for so long, I feel I can make a connection with younger children and I really find that with Anna. She’s a sweet girl and very quiet.” When they went to the Water Fowl Festival (another first for Anna), Harriett was able to give her a lesson in conservation, art, and even future life plans.

Which is precisely what Anna’s mom wants for her daughter. On the form that parents fill out for Talbot Mentors, she said she wanted Anna to know that there is more to life than what she could show her. Luckily, this is something Harriett can give her mentee.

Besides the recommended hour per week, the pair also gets together for special events and to work on interesting projects, like when they painted rocks recently and hid them for others to find. They have fun, and it’s no wonder that Anna feels that the time they spend together is not long enough. They’ve only known each other since August, yet Harriett believes that her mentee has been incorporated into her family, and she into theirs. So much so, that Anna’s mom has invited her to Anna’s quinceañera party (celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday), which also happens to be five years in the future.

That feeling of family is very evident when Harriett describes how she always hugs her mentee after their time together. “She expects that now,” says Harriett, “She gets out of the car and waits for me to come around and give her a hug.”

It was meant to be, Harriett feels. Anna’s birthday, after all, is on the same day as her late husbands’. Bets are on that this new pairing will last a long time.

Gary Pearce and Jaylen

If we’re talking about time spent with a mentee, Gary Pearce comes to mind. He speaks with 16 years of mentoring experience. His first mentee, Dale, was in 4th grade when they met years ago. Dale is now married, with a child, and living in Seaford, MD. They still keep in touch. After they parted and after spending a couple of years on Talbot Mentors’ Board of Directors, Gary was paired with 14-year-old Jaylen three years ago.

What made him decide to take on another child? Gary explains it this way: “I used to travel a lot, and wasn’t as involved in my kid’s sports programs or after school activities as I wanted to. Having a mentee allows me to do things I used to do or want to do with my own kids that I wouldn’t otherwise.” Besides, Gary has always been interested in youth programs including Talbot Optimist Club, Talbot Partnership, Echo Hill, and others.

There is an easy familiarity when Gary speaks about his mentees. Jaylen, he said, is in 8th grade, and a confident young man who last year was class president. He’s into theater, acts in all the school plays. They go to the movies, plays, and Gary takes him to rehearsals. Sometimes when they go out to dinner, Jaylen is like a ‘social butterfly,’ going from table to table greeting people he knows. The Talbot Mentors program, Gary says, is good for him. It helps him to continue to develop his personality. Together they cook a lot, making desserts and baking things. After all, Gary says, “What 14-year-old doesn’t like to eat?”

Dale, in contrast, came from a difficult situation, living with his grandmother until she passed away in 10th grade. “When we first got together he was very shy and through the years came out of it,” says Gary. “He was a small skinny kid, and I got him involved in working out at the Y. He loved it. In the summer of his junior year, he would run miles from his home to the YMCA, 2-3 mornings a week and lift/work out for a couple of hours, and run back home. He got involved and was very active in MMA (mixed martial arts) You can see his confidence grow as his chest expanded. He wasn’t the skinny kid we started with. He didn’t abuse his situation; he just grew in confidence.” Together they attended various sports games—Oriels, Shorebirds, even the Jets in NYC.

When asked about the time spent with his mentees, Gary says it fluctuates. “We commit to one hour a week, but sometimes it’s 2-3 times a week. It depends on the projects they’ve got going and varies week to week.” Nowadays, Gary and his wife spend January in Florida, so he doesn’t see Jaylen at all during that time. It all works out, though, for both of them.

Gary is grateful for the support he receives from Talbot Mentors, saying: “They provide you with what you need. Having been a mentor for this long, I don’t need the same amount of support that I did when I started, but there are times when you run into situations you’re not quite sure how to handle, and the staff is always there for you.”

The influence that mentors have on children can’t be understated. Less is said about the impact these children have on those who volunteer their time. Perhaps, the experience of mentoring can best be summed up by Ali and John Strickland, both of who are Talbot County Public Schools administrators and mentors to siblings Tabius and Taylan Wilson. At a recent dinner celebrating Talbot Mentors 21st year, Tabius and Taylan gave a speech about the influence the Stricklands had on their success. What follows is the Stricklands’ response:

“We are always proud of you, Taylan and Tabius.

Tabius said many kind things about John Strickland and me, but the one thing he didn’t mention is what they have done for us. These two amazing young adults have been there for our family during the ups and downs. They were two of the first visitors in the hospital when Bradley (their child) was born. We can’t imagine our lives and our family without them. They have made us better parents, better educators, better for each other, and better people.”

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Wondering how you can help?

• Become a mentor to a child who would benefit from a positive role model.
• Donate and help achieve the goal of offering every mentee a camp experience.
• Volunteer to teach the children your special talent or hobby.

Still unsure? Attend a Talbot Mentor Infosession on the 2nd Wednesday of each month, @ 4:30-5:15 at Talbot Mentors office on 108 Maryland Ave. Suite #102 in Easton.  For additional information contact (410) 770-5999 or talbotmentors.org

Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.

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