Model Mentors

By Jennifer Wray
From the October 2012 issue of Columbus CEO

The positives of youth mentoring are many: Improved listening and communication skills. Humility. A better understanding of diversity.

And those are just the advantages for the adult role models. For a young person, says Ed Cohn, mentoring “is a great intervention.”

Cohn should know. The former president of Unizan Bank Columbus has served as president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Central Ohio since 2005. The research bears him out.

A 2010 analysis in Social Policy Report (SPR), a publication of the Society for Research in Child Development, said that a young person’s relationship with a non-parent adult or older peer mentor “may enhance coping and promote positive socio-economical, cognitive and identity development.”

“During the last 15 years, mentoring has become one of the country’s most popular interventions to improve the lives of disadvantaged and at-risk youth,” SPR wrote.

BBBS of America is one of the nation’s oldest and largest youth mentoring organizations; its Central Ohio chapter is the third-largest in the country. Last year, nearly 4,000 young people were involved in the chapter’s community- and school-based programs; almost 1,000 more were served at the organization’s Camp Oty’Okwa, in the Hocking Hills.

BBBS of Central Ohio is also home to the Mentoring Center, which is supported by Alexandria, Va.-based MENTOR: the National Mentoring Partnership. The Mentoring Center provides background checks, training and coaching on best practices.

As of 2010, its 10th birthday, the center had relationships with more than 100 youth-mentoring organizations—40 in Central Ohio and the remainder in Northern Ohio. The center has trained more than 20,000 mentors, including more than 3,000 adults participating in Project Mentor, a partnership between BBBS of Central Ohio and Columbus City Schools. Local partner agencies include Asian American Community Services, Educational Council/KIDSConnect, Expanding Visions Foundation, Franklin County Children Services, Godman Guild Mentoring Northwest/Northwest Counseling and YouthBuild.

Community- and School-based Efforts

Youth mentoring comes in all shapes and sizes, but the most common involves community-based pairings. “That’s what we’re known for: Big Brother/Little Brother, Big Sister/Little Sister—they form a relationship and then go out to the community to do things together,” Cohn says. Matches meet at least twice a month. Children are typically referred by a parent or mentor. A match support coordinator conducts regular checks to make sure the relationship is going well.

In school-based programs, pairs generally meet during the weekday and engage in structured activities. Such programs tend to attract more volunteers because they offer both greater structure and a predictable time commitment. They also require less parental involvement and, since school personnel are present, are considered to have fewer safety risks, according to SPR.

BBBS of Central Ohio’s largest school-based program is Project Mentor, which was launched in 2007. It made more than 1,000 matches, primarily with eighth-graders, its first year in partnership with more than 80 businesses, government and community groups and faith-based organizations, from Abbott Nutrition to Zaner-Bloser. Students and mentors meet once a week during the lunch hour. The effort targets low-income students who may have struggled with standardized testing; parents or administrators may refer a child to the program.

The programs are complementary. Having both “allows us to get to students and get to kids we wouldn’t get to between the two programs, and get volunteers to help that wouldn’t otherwise be able to help,” Cohn says.

Informal Relationships

Informal mentoring has positive effects, too. In 2006, a survey of more than 3,300 middle- and high-school students by Boston-based Students Against Destructive Decisions and Liberty Mutual found that teens with at least one influential, “natural” mentor reported having “a higher sense of self” and were “more likely to take risks that affect their lives positively,” such as joining an athletic team or volunteering for community service.

It is this type of relationship that Ty Marsh, a consultant and former president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber, entered in 2006 with a boy who was then in sixth grade.

Longtime Marsh friend Tom Rosenberg, a partner at Roetzel & Andress, had spent the last two years mentoring Dajuan Johnson; Johnson had a friend (not named here for privacy reasons) who sometimes tagged along. Marsh got permission from the boy’s grandmother to meet regularly for trips to McDonald’s, sports events and even a get-together with Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, Marsh’s old boss from his chief of staff days.

Marsh says the experience has been an instructive one: “I learned as much from him—if not more so—than he’s learned from me.” By talking with the boy, a Hilltop resident, Marsh gained a greater understanding of his family and what life in the neighborhood was like. “I’m from Southern Ohio, and there is poverty where I grew up. … It’s not that I’d never been around that, but this is just a more modern era.”

Marsh encouraged his mentee, a strong student in mathematics, to study hard and think seriously about college. He gained permission from the boy’s grandmother—and, after her death, the boy’s sister—to attend parent-teacher conferences. Serious talks between the two always started with a handshake and typically included Marsh’s counsel. “I told him that God gave him the gift of this brain, and he was going to use this brain. The question was whether he was going to use it for something good or something not so good, and that was his opportunity and that was his challenge,” Marsh says.

The young man graduated from Briggs High School in the spring and is now attending Shawnee State University in Portsmouth with the help of student loans. Marsh reports he has handled the transition well and is committed to becoming an elementary or middle school math teacher.

Other Central Ohio executives also have learned the value of mentoring relationships. Here are a few of their stories:

Dawn Tyler Lee and Carlene Saxon

Dawn Tyler Lee lives by the Scripture, “to whom much is given, much is required.” It’s little surprise, then, that Tyler Lee formed her strongest and longest-standing mentoring relationship with Carlene Saxon, a young woman Tyler Lee met more than a decade ago at church.

Tyler Lee, an assistant vice president at Ohio State University and executive director of the Near East Side redevelopment project Partners Achieving Community Transformation, met Saxon, then a fifth-grader, at Faith Ministries on Columbus’s Northeast Side.

“I guess I saw some of myself in her. … She’s pretty quiet and laid-back and low-key, and I’m kind of the same way,” Tyler Lee says. Saxon says she was drawn to Tyler Lee because, “She’s just an amazing person. … I looked up to her. I still look up to her.”

Tyler Lee took Saxon to restaurants and movies and attended her dance recitals. Tyler Lee says Saxon inspired her to sign up for an adult dance class two years ago: “I took the class and then I had a recital and she got to come, and it was fun. A lot of my desire to dance was from watching her do it.”

Saxon and her siblings were raised by their grandparents. While she was always strong academically, she struggled socially after ninth grade, when her family moved and Saxon transferred from Northland to Olentangy High School. Tyler Lee “was one of the reasons why I made it through school,” says Saxon. “Every step of the way, she was there to encourage me and help me make it through that cultural shock of changing schools.”

Tyler Lee took Saxon on college tours and encouraged her to attend gatherings of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, which gave Saxon a scholarship. Tyler Lee handed Saxon her high school diploma at graduation and helped her move into the dorms at the University of Akron, where she studied criminology before graduating in fall 2011.

“I always felt—even though we’re closer in age—that I was kind of a mother figure, since her mom wasn’t as active in her life,” Tyler Lee says. Says Saxon: “She’s like a mother, big sister, best friend, all in one.”

Philip Smith and William Eberhardt

When William Eberhardt, then a seventh-grader at Monroe Traditional Middle school, first met Philip Smith, Eberhardt was, in his own words, “a knucklehead kid” who often got into fights and got suspended.

Eberhardt, now a senior at Columbus Downtown High School, studies law enforcement at the vocational school, where he’s an honor roll student. His high school record is unmarred by the fights that marked his younger days, and he wants to major in criminology at a four-year college in the hopes of working as a SWAT officer before realizing his dream career: a restaurateur specializing in global cuisine.

Smith, managing partner of the Columbus office of accounting firm KPMG, says he was prompted to participate in Project Mentor after hearing Cohn speak. The program “is a total switch from my normal day,” Smith says. “It gives me a sense of connectivity, and it helps me understand my kids a little bit better, because William is the same age as my daughter.” Smith and his wife, Ellen, have two children: Abi, 17, and Erik, 15. Serving as a mentor for Eberhardt “just gives me a different perspective,” he says.

Eberhardt has an autistic younger brother, Antonio; two older sisters (Joshuana, a student at Miami University, and Candace, a real estate agent); as well as an adult cousin, Lawrence, who was raised by Eberhardt’s mother. Eberhardt says his parents’ divorce led to many of his behavioral problems. He credits Smith and Project Mentor for playing key roles in his transformation. “As I grow older, I realize and learn from my mistakes in the past. Every day, I’m closer to being an adult, and this program, I would say, helped me a lot to change from my old ways,” he says.

During their weekly gatherings, Eberhardt and Smith talk about school, weekend activities and videogames and also do structured activities, such as making blankets to donate to a shelter. Smith says he’s witnessed major change in Eberhardt when it comes to his confidence level, ability to make eye contact, and comfort talking about himself and his feelings. “That’s one of the bigger differences—besides rugged good looks,” says Smith.

“The best part of the relationship that me and Philip share in this program? It would be kind of everything. It’s an honor to get to meet with a role model every week and talk about stuff, and it’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” says Eberhardt.

Both Eberhardt and Smith say they encourage their peers to take part in programs such as Project Mentor. “It’s a great opportunity, it opens doors, and it’s something you won’t regret,” says Eberhardt.

“As you think about how do you want to make a difference in the community—and people can do that with their time, people can do it with their money and the like—this is something that’s time-based, it’s a little bit harder, it puts you in front of something, it takes you out of your comfort zone,” says Smith. “But there’s a connectivity that you don’t get with a lot of the other ways people participate. … It’s something you can’t buy.”

Tom Rosenberg and Dajuan Johnson

A matter of happenstance brought Dajuan Johnson and Tom Rosenberg together eight years ago. Johnson, then a fourth-grader at Highland Elementary School, was a part of the state-funded literacy program Ohio Reads, for which Rosenberg’s wife, Karen Rosenberg, a professor at Capital University Law School, was a volunteer. One day she couldn’t make it, and Rosenberg went in her place.

Rosenberg and Johnson hit it off. A couple weeks later, he wrote Johnson’s mother with a request: “He said, ‘I’d really like to mentor your son and help him out,’ ” recalls Johnson.

Rosenberg and Johnson played sports and attended Ohio State University football games, hockey games and the like. Rosenberg’s Downtown office became a place where Johnson, who graduated from Briggs in the spring, would do homework after school or on weekends.

“Dajuan was willing to work hard at school, and his mom always has been extremely supportive of our relationship, and we’ve been able to provide for Dajuan,” says Rosenberg. “We help out financially at times, we help out with schoolwork, and it’s turned out to be great. He’s turned out to be a great young man.”

Times haven’t always been easy—Johnson lives in the Hilltop, and his grades took a temporary dip due to instability at home. But he recently started classes at Shawnee State, where he wants to major in respiratory therapy—a likely result of his own asthma.

Johnson, a middle child raised by a single mother, says his mom and sisters support his relationship with the Rosenbergs. “They love it. They say it’s the best thing that’s happened to me, and it truly is.” He calls Rosenberg’s influence on his life “such a surreal thing. It seems like it’s something that doesn’t happen to many people like me, so when you have a chance like what I’ve got to have him in my life, you really learn to appreciate the better things in life. I think that’s the value that I’ve really learned. Don’t take anything for granted and just have faith, because there’s always somebody that’s there for you, you just have to believe.”

Before Johnson headed off to college, he reminded Rosenberg of his promise to pick him up and bring him to OSU tailgates. “This is bigger, I would say, than a typical, ‘let me watch you graduate,’ ” says Johnson. “It’s a more of a father-son type thing.”

“I told Dajuan I’d stop giving him a hug when he turns 40,” says Rosenberg. “It is a two-way street, it truly is. It’s been so enjoyable for my wife and I to have D in our lives. … We’re just so proud of the way he’s turned out so far and know that he has great potential to continue.”

Jennifer Wray is a former staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the October 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.