One afternoon, Victoria Rose was weeding in her garden when she spotted a boy walking up the street. She had seen the teenager pass by in his wanderings around her Silver Spring neighborhood. Today, instead of putting her head down and concentrating on her roses, she waved.
"What are you up to?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing," the boy responded. "Just walking around."
When she heard the lanky child speak, she knew right away he was African. Victoria had recently retired from the Foreign Service, where her work included 24 years in Ghana, Liberia, Zaire, and elsewhere.
Standing there, she couldn't get her mother's voice out of her head. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," her mother used to say.
She introduced herself as "Ms. Rose" and invited the 13-year-old Ethiopian child, whose name was Markos Ayalew, to help her tend her overgrown garden. She would pay $10 an hour.
"An American kid would say, 'I'm not going to let my buddies in on this,' " says Rose, who has one adopted son of her own. But Markos comes from a more collective cultural background.
He told his buddy Sirack Gobezai, whose family emigrated from Eritrea 15 years ago. Both live in Rosemary Village, a Silver Spring apartment complex, and attend Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Then Sirack told Alieu Tunkara, a native of Gambia, and Alieu told Lionel Agishi, who hails from Nigeria. All the boys showed up ready to garden.
"At one point there were so many kids I had to start turning some away," says Victoria. But she took an interest in the four boys. Their parents worked long hours, trying to get ahead while sending money to relatives abroad. She knew that on many afternoons the boys were on their own.
That was three years ago. Today, Sirack, Alieu, Markos, and Lionel drop by every weekend and sometimes after school to work in the garden. The four might plant a row of bulbs or clear a soil bed for a patch of lavender.
If any of them is wandering around the neighborhood, it's usually to come to Ms. Rose's house. Once they're in the garden, where greenery loops around vibrant red, yellow, and purple flowers, each can proudly identify every plant that's "his."
"See that one?" Sirack says, pointing to a four-foot-tall cluster of pink lilies. "I planted that as just a small seedling."
In the beginning, they came to make some spending money. Now they often come just to talk–sometimes about home, sometimes about school.
"Ms. Rose keeps us off the streets," says 16-year-old Alieu Tunkara. Being in the garden, he says, reminds him of his homeland, where he used to grow onions and give them away on the street. "If I have nothing to do, I'll come by. She tells us real good stories about West Africa."
When the boys do well in school, Rose takes them out for pizza. Other times, she'll give them a talk on the importance of going to college.
"One of the reasons they love me," she says, "is because they know my heart is really in it. And the kids are listening. You just have to keep up like a broken record. Eventually, things like the importance of school will sink in."
She also talks to them about American culture, including holidays, television shows, and music. One of the boys didn't know what Thanksgiving was, so she invited him to dinner and explained the significance of the day.
"I know what these kids are struggling with," she says. "And I'm in a position to help."
Victoria Rose knows this: Kids want to do well. But it's easy not to if there aren't enough caring adults around to guide them.
So for Sirack, Alieu, Markos, and Lionel, she has become a mentor. And the garden is their sanctuary.
When the boys show up on her front stoop, they know they will leave feeling encouraged, listened to, and understood.
"If young people have adults who take an active role in their life, there are more opportunities for someone to notice when something is wrong," says Angeli Weller of Adams Morgan, a mentor for two years with the DC-based Mentors Inc.
There are also more opportunities to help. Weller's "mentee," Tiffany Pittman, joined Mentors Inc. in the beginning of her senior year. She was hoping to get a little extra guidance when applying to college. But that same year, Tiffany's mother died. Twenty-four-year-old Angeli became part of her support system.
"She was like a gift from God," says Tiffany, 18, who starts at Virginia State University this fall. "She came to the funeral. She kept in contact with me. I have friends who have not been that dedicated."
"Kids are used to people not taking time for them," says Michele Booth Cole, executive director of Mentors Inc. "Parents think that as their kids get older, their kids don't need them as much. But that's when they need someone to listen to them most."
Even when parents do take the time, their children may not be receptive. Kids don't always want to talk to their parents. But they may talk to a mentor.
For young people involved in mentoring, there's evidence that long-term, one-on-one relationships work.
In 1995, Philadelphia Public/Private Ventures conducted a study of 959 kids. Half of these 10- to 16-year-olds took part in Big Brothers/Big Sisters; the other half did not. After 18 months, the study found that kids with a mentor were less likely to start using drugs and alcohol and were less likely to hit someone. School attendance and grades went up, and they started to get along better with their families and peers.
But it takes effort to get these results. Many relationships fail, sometimes because of a personality conflict or because one may suspect that the other isn't truly committed. Sometimes race and class get in the way.
From the four boys Victoria Rose mentors to the kids whose stories follow, the benefits from having a mentor are clear.
It's not about "saving poor little public-school children," says Larisa Dinsmoor, a 26-year-old mentor with Mentors Inc. It's about lending an ear, offering guidance, and showing a child you care. Mentoring is about being a grown-up friend.
Teaching a Lonely Child to Dream
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Bryan Prilliman sits with his legs crossed on the beige carpeting in a basement apartment in Sterling. An only child, ten-year-old Bryan often plays alone in the living room–sometimes stacking his 24 baseballs into a pyramid or constructing a building with Legos–while his mother, Margaret, works on needlepoint in the kitchen.
In his house, he doesn't have to listen to the neighborhood kids tease him about being tall for his age. Prilliman, who is raising him with little involvement from her ex-husband, worries about Bryan's pulling deeper into himself.
But not when the phone rings. At the other end of the line is Howard Rosenman, a gangly, 41-year-old America Online media developer. "Hi, it's Howard," he says. "Can Bryan come out and play?"
A few days later, they're off. This time it's to drive go-carts at a rink a few miles from Bryan's house on Route 28 near Dulles Airport. They zoom around the track in separate cars, each trying to outrace the other while shooting pretend guns.
When Rosenman met Bryan two years ago as part of a mentoring program sponsored by Big Brothers/Big Sisters and AOL, Bryan was very shy. On his way to one of their first one-on-one meetings at Guilford Elementary School, Rosenman grabbed a tub of his stepson's Legos. After he and Bryan worked on some multiplication problems, they fiddled with the Lego pieces. Suddenly, the pressure was off and the two could just play.
When they completed the yearlong program, Rosenman became Bryan's official Big Brother. Now they get together every Saturday. "He missed one time," Bryan says. "But he was sick."
Rosenman takes his commitment seriously. He had wanted to sign up for years but didn't until AOL's volunteer program made it easy. Once he did, he was nervous. Rosenman thought that to be a good mentor, you had to be superhuman. Now he knows what Bryan needed was simply a friend.
"You don't have to be perfect," says Rosenman. "I was always thinking my shortcomings would hurt my effectiveness as a Big Brother. I'm not a teacher. I'm not a psychologist. But I'm someone he will not be afraid to talk to when something is wrong."
He's also someone who has made a visible difference in Bryan's life. After more than 100 "playdates," his mother happily reports that Bryan isn't nearly as shy. He's gained self-confidence, isn't restless in school, and has made new friends in the third grade.
In a letter to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, Margaret Prilliman wrote: "My words to express how thankful I am will never be enough. My voice will never be loud enough. But the beautiful smile I see on Bryan's face, when he talks about Howard and the times they're together, is priceless."
Someone Who Doesn't Judge
In the kitchen of her parents' Reston townhouse, Nichole Donofrio pulls the last two spoons from the sink and places them into the dishwasher. At this time of day, many 18-year-olds are rushing home from school to catch the end of MTV's Total Request Live. But Nikki hasn't watched that show in ages.
She spins around and sets her eyes on her son, Caleb, squirming in his swing. Nikki picks up the eight-month-old child and holds him close.
With them is Janice Scott, who has been Nikki's mentor for two years. She is a paid mentor with Resource Mothers, a Fairfax County program for teen mothers. Resource Mothers started as a volunteer initiative, but after having trouble finding adults willing to make a yearlong commitment, it hired a staff. Now mentors like Scott work 40 hours a week, with as many as 25 girls each.
Scott and Nikki first met in October 1998 at South Lakes High School in Res-ton. Scott was explaining safe sex to a few girls the high-school counselor thought were at risk of getting pregnant. Nikki was one of them.
"I didn't take birth control," she says, "because as strange as it sounds, I'd be admitting to myself that I was having sex."
Months later, when Nikki took a home pregnancy test and saw the result, she immediately told her parents. "They were very disappointed," she says. "I didn't know how to act around my mom. I didn't know what to say or how to feel. But I knew right away I didn't want an abortion."
That's when she dug up Scott's business card and called her.
"I knew it was coming," says Scott, who has two daughters of her own. When she tells girls they should be using birth control and the girls brush her off, "I know sooner or later I'll hear one of them got pregnant."
Since then, it's been one struggle after the next for Nikki. She's turned to Scott when she was too embarrassed to let her parents help.
First, there was Brad, the baby's father, with whom she broke up right before the baby was born. "I wanted to be a happy family with a white picket fence," Nikki says. Brad didn't. Scott helped her come to terms with feelings of loneliness and rejection.
Then there was her high school, where Nikki no longer felt comfortable. Scott helped her find Mountainview, an alternative high school in Centreville, where she graduated in June with straight A's.
When the baby was born, Scott educated Nikki about Virginia custody laws, helping her fill out the forms to ensure she was Caleb's sole custodian.
"It's hard to be a teenage mom," says Nikki. For months she wore a plain silver band on her ring finger so people would think she was married and stop bugging her about being a young mother.
This fall, while most of her friends go away to college, she's working full-time. In some ways, Nikki is being left behind.
For this reason, Scott's friendship has become irreplaceable. Her guidance–even hearing her voice on the other end of the phone–is comforting. When Nikki left Caleb for the first time to start her job as an office manager, she called Scott's cell phone, close to tears. "You never told me it was going to be this hard," Nikki said.
In two years, when their "official" mentoring relationship is over, Scott says she'll still call and check up on Nikki. She enjoys giving her parenting advice. Both agree they've come too far together to just let go.
Building a Relationship that Lasts
It's Fadeke Goncalve's senior year at H.D. Woodson High School, and this Monday afternoon she is stressed. College applications are due in a few weeks. And instead of working on her personal essay, Fadeke is blowing off deadlines.
Later that day, her mentor, Courtenay Dousenbury, sits down at a table in the cafeteria of Gonzaga High School and waits for Fadeke to walk through the door. But her patience is wearing thin. It's 6:45 PM, and Fadeke, once again, is late.
Dousenbury, a congressional staffer in her thirties, decided to be a mentor four years ago. On Capitol Hill, she would often talk about urban youth–a segment of the population she knew little about. Through Fadeke, Dousenbury hoped to learn about one child's needs and struggles.
The two met three years ago in Gonzaga High School's chapel. They were matched by College Bound, a program that expects its mentors not only to be friends with its students but also to help get them into college. When their names were called over the loudspeaker, Fadeke started jumping up and down, waving. When they met face-to-face, they embraced.
Now, 25 minutes after she was expected, Fadeke strolls into the cafeteria. Dousenbury can't bite her tongue. With a newborn baby at home, Dousenbury makes special arrangements to come to their two-hour weekly meetings. She expects Fadeke, 18, to be as committed–or at least show up.
First, she lectures her about being late. Then she launches into questions: Are your applications done? Do we need to work on your essay? Did you get a part-time job yet? Fadeke's body stiffens.
"People are always nagging me and giving me advice," Fadeke blurts out. "I'm tired of you."
Dousenbury takes a deep breath.
"That's fine, Fadeke," she says, calmly. "If you don't want me to be on your case, I won't. I feel I've done all I can with you."
But as soon as Dousenbury leaves, Fadeke feels terrible. "I didn't say to her, 'Please don't ask me these questions because my father, mother, and sister are,' " she says. "It made me realize I have to explain how I feel."
Over the years of their relationship, Dousenbury wrote Fadeke dozens of letters that the teen keeps in a shoebox under her bed, reading them when she's feeling down. But soon after this incident, Dousenbury sent her a troubling letter, telling her she could no longer be her mentor.
Overcome with regret, Fadeke composed a letter of her own: I know you were motivated out of your love for me. I understand if you don't want to be my mentor anymore. But I will always love you–even if you don't come back.
Dousenbury called Fadeke. They talked about what went wrong and made a pact to be more understanding of each other. Both believe the conflict drew them closer.
Soon after, they got Fadeke's college applications out in the mail, and the two began a scholarship search. Several months later, Fadeke was accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University and awarded about $10,000 in scholarship money.
"I've already put together a care package to send her," says Dousenbury. It has sheets, towels, and lots of junk food. But Fadeke's going off to school doesn't mean Dousenbury will stop nagging her. They're friends now. And Dousenbury believes she's gained as much as Fadeke has.
"You can't have a friendship with someone with a different cultural background and not learn from it," says Dousenbury. One night, when she was picking up Fadeke to go to an awards ceremony, she saw four African-American boys standing outside the Metro. She figured they were troublemakers. But when she got to the ceremony, she saw that one of them had won a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"When you're a mentor, you come into contact with someone you normally wouldn't," she says. "You begin to understand other people's perspectives. And it breaks down a lot of barriers."
From One Generation to the Next
Five years ago, Robbie peacher noticed there were a lot of fathers in the parking lot of Abingdon Elementary School in Arlington. His mom always picked him up from kindergarten. Robbie, with curly hair and a scratchy voice, wondered why he didn't have a dad.
When his mother, Gwen, pulled up to the school, he hopped in the car. "Mom, we've got to talk," he said. "What is taking you so long to get me a new dad? Why don't you just go to the store and buy me one?"
Robbie's father died in a car accident when he was two. Gwen has not remarried, and she worries about Robbie's growing up without a male role model. The last thing she wants him to do is look up to action-film stars.
"I wanted him to get to know an ordinary hard-working person," says his mother. "I've seen boys who don't have men in their life. I've seen them not care about their education and get into trouble with the law."
Gwen's prayers came true when Robbie hit it off with former teacher Carlton Funn, a volunteer with Grandfathers Group, a mentoring project that matches African-American retirees with African-American boys.
Funn, 68, is pleased he is mentoring ten-year-old Robbie at such a young age for the same reason he chose to teach middle-schoolers: "They are not set in their ways. I know if they are on the wrong track, I can sway them on the right one."
Gwen says Funn's presence is doing that. Most years, Robbie is sullen around Father's Day. This year, the Peachers had someplace to go. They stopped by Funn's house with flowers and a card. For two hours, he and Robbie sat on the floor chatting and playing with the dogs."Everybody needs somebody, and I don't believe in half-stepping," says Funn, who has been Robbie's mentor for about a year and a half. "I need to continue to find out what I can do to help him grow, to help Robbie find his niche. And I intend to stay with him as he grows into manhood."
Funn plans to tutor Robbie, teach him about history, open his eyes to new things, and give him advice. Robbie sees their relationship more simply: "I like him because he's always there. He tells me things. Or we'll play in the park. He's fun."
Funn is a storyteller. Sometimes he tells Robbie tales of an Alexandria before desegregation. Other times he'll ask questions like, "Do you know of any black cowboys?" Then a wide-eyed Robbie will listen to Funn launch into a tale involving Deanwood Dick and Nat Love.
"I liked him right away," says Funn, who taught school for 38 years. "He wasn't rambunctious. He likes schoolwork. And he loves his math. I always tell him I can see him becoming a math professor."
Funn appreciates the trust Gwen Peacher has in him to guide Robbie. "It's a partnership," he says. "And Robbie is in the middle of us." n
When Victoria Rose asked a neighboring teen to help in her garden, she ended up mentoring four boys from Africa. She's shown with Lionel Agishi, Sirack Gobezai, and Alieu Tunkara. I know what these kids are struggling with," Rose says, "and I'm in a position to help."
Legos broke the ice the first time ten-year-old Bryan Prilliman met his Big Brother, Howard Rosenman. "I'm not a teacher," says Rosenman. "I'm not a psychologist. But I'm someone he will not be afraid to talk to when something is wrong."
Janice Scott offers guidance to Nikki Donofrio, 18, shown with her son, Caleb. "You never told me it was going to be this hard," Nikki said the first time she left Caleb to go to work.
Courtenay Dousenbury, at right, has written Fadeke Goncalves, 18, dozens of letters over the last three years. Their relationship hasn't always been smooth. "You can't have a friendship with someone from a different cultural background and not learn from it," says Dousenbury.
Retired schoolteacher Carlton Funn mentors ten-year-old Robbie Peacher. "Everybody needs somebody," says Funn, "and I don't believe in half-stepping. I intend to stay with him as he grows into manhood."
Every day around Washington, people like Victoria Rose and Carlton Funn take time to mentor a young person. But there are not enough mentors for all of those who need them.
There are at least 100,000 local 8- to 17-year-olds who are considered "at risk," according to Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the National Capital Area. On the waiting list alone are 300 kids, mostly boys, from single-parent or disadvantaged homes. But there are many more who don't fit the classic definition of "at risk" who would benefit from having mentors.
There are dozens of good mentoring programs in the Washington area. Here are some of the largest, plus details on the programs featured in this article.
Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the National Capital Area, 10210 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt; 301-794-9170. Matches mentors in long-term relationships with youth.
Clean & Pure Kids, 2307 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE; 202-678-3890. Matches mentors with foster-care kids in DC, Alexandria, and Arlington, Montgomery, and Prince George's counties.
College Bound, 128 M St., NW; 202-842-0858. Volunteers are paired with DC public-school students in grades 8-12 for tutoring, SAT prep, and mentoring.
EnvironMentors Project, 1010 Vermont Ave., NW; 202-347-5300. Links teenagers with scientists and environmental professionals for eight months of an independent-study project.
Grandfathers Group, 418 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-549-0111. African-American retirees are paired with African-American boys.
Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, 800 K St., NW; 202-414-4774. A two-year program for high-school juniors and seniors.
Mentors Inc., 1012 14th St., NW; 202-783-2310. Mentors are paired with DC high-school students.
National Mentoring Partnership, 1600 Duke St., Alexandria; 703-224-2200. Lists dozens of mentoring programs, searchable by Zip code, at www. mentoring.org.
Resource Mothers, 2940 Hunter Mill Rd., Oakton; 703-255-1100. Teenage mothers are matched with a mentor for three years.