It hit Rita Black one night a couple of years ago. The realization, that is, that she'd signed up for a mentoring program but ended up being part of something a whole lot bigger. She and the young woman she'd been assigned to mentor — well, Black realized that night, it turns out they were like family.
"What really brought it home to me," the 44-year-old Carmel resident said, "was that night when we were out to dinner on my birthday."
At this point, I should note, I was interviewing Black and the young woman she mentors, 17-year-old Demaelyun Harvey, but they were actually talking to each other, not to me. We were all huddled at a small table in a busy Northside coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon, talking above the whir of a coffee grinder about life and school and the Starfish Initiative, the wonderful local mentoring program that connected the two four years ago.
"And as we talked," Black continued, "you said, 'What do you think my kids are going to call you?' That question told me that we both knew this was a lasting friendship, that I'm not just here to help you fill out some college applications and send you on your way."
Then Black added one final point, just to make everything as clear as possible: "This relationship is lifelong."
Demaelyun ( I'll call her Mae from here on because that's what everyone else calls her) nodded and smiled, and then she told me that after a discussion at the restaurant that evening the two came to an agreement: Her future children would call her mentor "Auntie Rita." For now, Mae just calls Black her friend — a friend who has helped guide her through her high school years and who, in the end, "has always been there for me."
"Being able to have somebody behind you to support you, that's been really important," Mae said. "Some people don't have that support, and it's been nice to know that she's been there for me."
Mae signed up with the Starfish Initiative with the support of her mom, who hoped the program could partner her with someone who could give her the extra guidance she might need during her high school years. Too many young people in her Crown Hill neighborhood fall away from school, or fail to do what it takes to go to a good college, and that wasn't going to happen in this case, the family made clear. Black, meantime, joined the program after reading about it in the paper, just as she was looking for a way to give back to the region she and her husband had moved to two years earlier.
Starfish's mission made a ton of sense to Black. The program seeks to help low-income students from hard-hit neighborhoods navigate the sometimes-tricky path through high school and into college. It does so by matching local college graduates with high school students for up to four years. It's been a tremendous success; nearly every student who has spent four years in the program has won admission to college, many becoming the first in their families to get there.
Black, an executive assistant, pondered the idea of signing up for a few months, hesitating only because "you're committing to someone else, so you want to make sure you have the time to do it right." But soon after signing up, and immediately after meeting Mae, any doubts she'd had disappeared.
"We immediately clicked," she said.
The relationship began with dinners and lunches, and long conversations. The two went to the zoo, painted pottery and got to know each other. Over time, Mae became a frequent guest at Black's house, growing close to her husband and neighbors. The two have gardened over the summers and baked cookies during the holiday seasons. They've talked about careers and classes and the tough choices young people have to make.
I asked the duo at one point to tell me about a memorable experience they'd shared, and they just laughed. Because there have been so many. They visited Black's family in Michigan, for instance, giving Mae her first visit to a beach. And they took a trip to Washington, D.C., waking at 5 a.m. one morning to visit the Lincoln Memorial. To get there, Mae got on a plane for the first time. "Whew," she said, letting out a deep sigh as she described the experience.
That trip, financed by Black's employer, Cisco Systems, provided another reminder of the impact of the mentoring program. "It said a lot that her mom trusted me to take her on the trip," Black told me. What that trust said, more than anything, was that they were like family.
In between the trips, there have been too many phone calls and talks and nights out to remember. It's been fun, both said, but it's also been a reminder that so many children in this city have great potential but don't get the experiences they deserve. Black said it's been her responsibility to show Mae that the world is full of opportunities that she is capable of grabbing onto.
And she has.
Approaching her final semester at Providence Cristo Rey High School, Mae's days are packed; there is volleyball or basketball practice many afternoons, along with an internship at Eli Lilly and Company. She wakes up early each weekday to catch a school bus at 5:40 a.m. that takes her on a zig-zagging trip through the city. On her mentor's advice, she signed up to be a mentor herself at her school, and the two these days are working on scholarship essays and looking at a long list of colleges that offer physical therapy degrees.
As the coffee shop grew more crowded that Sunday afternoon, Mae said high school had been a lot of work, and then she turned to Black and told her that she had made it all a lot easier. Black leaned in and said the commitment "has been so worth it. I get as much out of this as you do."
This city is filled with young people who just need a little bit of support to reach their potential. Thankfully, groups such as the Starfish Initiative, and people such as Rita Black, are providing that support.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/matthewltully
Our children need your help
The Star recently kicked off its annual funding-raising campaign, which provides grants to groups such as Starfish. Through the Our Children/Our City campaign (now merged with Season for Sharing), readers of the Indy Star have donated more than $1 million in recent years to help improve kids' lives. But the needs are still great, and now, as we enter the holiday season, we're asking you to help.
If you can give, please do. But also consider the need for volunteers and wonderful organizations across the city.
To donate, go here: http://www.indystar.com/ococdonate
And to serve as a mentor or tutor, contact these agencies:
Many students in Indianapolis hope to become the first members of their families to attend college. You can help ensure they're ready for the rigors of college work. The Starfish Initiative pairs college-educated mentors with academically promising students from low-income families. The Starfish Initiative works with more than 350 volunteers. There is an immediate need for 15 mentors and an additional 125 volunteers are needed by June. Starfish is accepting applications and training mentors now. Contact the Starfish Initiative at 317-955-7912 or atwww.starfishinitiative.org.
Big Brothers Big Sisters
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana provides children ages 8 to 18 with 1-to-1 mentoring relationships. There are 532 Marion County youth waiting for mentors, and 66 percent are boys, most of whom reside on the Eastside of Indianapolis. Being a "Big" requires a one-year commitment. Volunteers can expect to be enrolled, trained, and matched within 90 days. Contact Big Brothers Big Sisters at www.bebigforkids.orgor at 317-921-2201
Students who struggle with reading are at high risk of failing in school, and, without intervention, may drop out. Through ReadUP, a partnership between United Way and Indianapolis Public Schools, volunteers spend one hour a week working with IPS third- and fourth-graders. United Way has 831 ReadUP volunteers; 500 more are needed this semester, and 2,500 more can be put to work in the fall semester. Expect to wait about two weeks after contacting ReadUP to be assigned to a student. Contact ReadUP at (317) 925-7323 or at www.uwci.org.