Starfish: Making more than friends

To befriend a child as a Starfish mentor or learn how you can support this enrichment program through a donation or as a fundraising volunteer, contact Starfish director Beth Hilscher at starfish@headwatersfdn.org or call the Headwaters Foundation at 540-987-3322.

Second in a two-part series
In Starfish, the mentoring program sponsored by the Headwaters Foundation, 16 pairs of children and their adult friends are working to establish trust and understanding, build character and broaden horizons. Here are stories of two more of those partnerships.

Susan and Kayla

Nine-year-old Kayla Butler’s eyes outshine the sparkles on her T-shirt as she talks about Starfish and her mentor, Susan Levick. “I love it because I get to hang out with Susan, and she’s fun! We do fun things.” And in a breathless rush of words, Kayla rattles off her favorite outings — movies, summer trips to the 4-H pool in Front Royal where she learned to swim, a music festival and walking the homeless pups at the county’s animal shelter. “I love animals. I want to be a veterinarian,” Kayla confided.

Photo of Kayla and Susan by Daphne Hutchinson.

Other toppers on the have-done list are the open house at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute, exhibitions at Rappahannock galleries, a visit to a safari park with the added plus of miniature golf and an overnight at a hotel and trips to the library for books, with read-alouds, sometimes by Kayla and sometimes by Susan, to follow.

And then there are the just-as-magical adventures at Susan’s home in Flint Hill. They take walks down the lane to deliver carrots and apples to neighbor horses Ricky and Jasmine and donkey Beatrice. Kayla learned to weave on Susan’s loom. They put together jigsaw puzzles; play games of Go Fish, Crazy Eights and Skip Boo; pick flowers and vegetables from the garden; and brush and bathe Rosebud, the beagle. Some days, Kayla helps fix dinner. Other days, they might simply rock back and forth in the big front porch hammock, sharing confidences, songs, secrets and dreams.

Kayla’s mom died when she was 2 so it’s just Kayla and her dad at their place in Amissville, and while she has a close and loving relationship with her father and grandmother and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, the friendship of a younger woman is an added benefit to her life. Plus, when the duo grows into a trio, joined by Susan’s husband, Phil Drevas, for games, projects and meals at the dinner table, Kayla gets an up-close and personal look at the give-and-take of couple relationships.

An oncology nurse at the University of Virginia, first in the hospital and now at the Cancer Clinic, Susan had long relied on weaving to balance the physical and emotional stress of nursing. For three 12-hour days, she was a nurse in Charlottesville and for the balance of the week, she was at home on her loom, creating high-fashion fabrics for a New York designer.

Then, three years ago, the recession, which hit the fashion business along with so many other enterprises, ended the part-time weaving job. It was the classic blessing in disguise.

“I had wanted to give something back to the community, and for the first time in my working life, I had the time and the chance,” Susan recalled. She was looking at options when fate intervened with a phone call from Mary Jane Capello, Starfish Advisory Board member and a former teacher at the elementary school, asking if she would be interested in mentoring a seven-year-old girl. “I had reservations because I’d never been a parent. But I was told, ‘You’re not a parent; you’re a friend. So maybe not being a parent is a good thing.’ I thought about it a few days, and then I met you!” she added, turning to Kayla with a smile.

“And I went to your house and I met Rosebud,” the child beamed back. “She stood up, wagged her tail and fell in love with me!”
“We picked flowers, had lunch together, talked a lot, and I saw that being a friend to Kayla was going to be really easy. And I’ve never regretted it a minute. I look forward to being with you every week. It is just fun!” Susan added, her gaze locked with the child’s, as Kayla’s big smile grew bigger still, eyes twinkling as her head bounced up and down in enthusiastic affirmation.

What would Kayla tell a friend about Starfish?

“You should try it!” the 10-year-old replied. “You could learn something. You have fun and games and adventures.”

“What is it that you say every time I pick you up?” Susan asked.

Now Kayla’s smile gave way to a peal of laughter: “What adventure are we going to do today?”

Sam and C.J.

“A relationship with the potential to go on and on. That’s what we’re working on,” said Sam Fox, explaining his Starfish partnership with eighth-grader C.J. Campbell. “It seems like we’ve been together always. Even longer than always. We got started when C.J. was this tall,” Sam continued, holding his hand out at about four feet. “Now he’s six foot and an inch, and he’s taught me about everything I know!”

“It’s awesome,” C.J. added, grinning.

“A pitched battle from the get-go,” countered Sam, with an even wider grin. “Especially when we go out to eat. So we have a deal. We alternate picking a restaurant, but to C.J., that means I chose every tenth time. Basically, we do whatever he wants to do.”

“I told you it was awesome,” C.J. joked, adding a nod of affirmation.

The teenager and the retiree from a private law practice in D.C. are comfortable, relaxed and easy together, laughing, quipping, teasing, correcting and finishing each other’s sentences, just like best buddies do.

And that’s exactly what they are. “Sam’s a great friend,” C.J. affirmed. “If I’m having trouble, he’s there.”

“And if I need help, C.J. is there,” Sam added.

They’ve forged this bond by giving each other time and attention. The investment is about four hours a week, and the itinerary may be a swim, a bike ride, a game of Scrabble, a driving lesson, a workout in the gym, a movie, a program at the Rappahannock library, a University of Virginia sports event or a trip to Borders. They might do a repair project together or help a neighbor who has health problems by stacking wood or doing garden chores.

“C.J. comes from a philanthropic family — his mom helps everyone, and he’s picked that up,” Sam noted. Occasionally, they focus on school assignments. “But not math. That’s my favorite, and I’m a math wizard,” C.J. interjected.

Whatever they’re doing, they talk all the while. About everything. “I’m almost 70,” Sam said. “Hanging out with C.J. gives me perspective on what young people are thinking about and what’s important in their lives, so I’m really interested in what he has to say.”

But even with the excellent communication, this working partnership, like any working partnership, hasn’t been totally problem-free. “At one point, I realized I was being overbearing and C.J. was resenting it,” Sam recalled. “I said, ‘You tell me what you want us to be together. You tell me what you want to do.’ I finally understood that it’s a fifty-fifty relationship we have. Now we can talk things out,” he said, getting nods of agreement from C.J. “I give him my perspective. He doesn’t always agree, but he listens. Mentoring isn’t about sitting down and saying, ‘Do this, do this and do that.’ It’s the way we interact to impart certain values and better ways of doing things.”

“I’ve learned a lot from Sam,” the teenager said. “It’s great, it’s fun and it’s broadened my horizons.”

“You may want to fix every problem in a young person’s life, but as a mentor, you can’t. And you don’t need to. All you need to be is a friend,” Sam concluded.

To befriend a child as a Starfish mentor or learn how you can support this enrichment program through a donation or as a fundraising volunteer, contact Starfish director Beth Hilscher at starfish@headwatersfdn.org or call the Headwaters Foundation at 540-987-3322.