Starfish program: Why mentors matter

First in a two-part series

“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future”
–John Fitzgerald Kennedy

That belief is the bedrock for the Starfish Mentoring Program of Headwaters, the foundation that supports Rappahannock’s public schools.

Starfish was established in 1997 by Lois Manookian and Judy Tole, local advocates for kids and education. They saw isolated children in a rural county who could benefit from adult friends, and they organized mentors to meet the need. Successful from the start, the effort soon outgrew the management capabilities of volunteers so the mentors turned to the new foundation for help. Headwaters adopted Starfish in 2001, and under its auspices, the program has grown and flourished, with more than 200 children nurtured over the course of 12 years.

Mentoring shouldn’t be confused with tutoring. Here the emphasis is on friendship and fun — not academics. The goal is to build character and boost self-esteem and confidence rather than grades. But happily, the positive results stretch to the classroom. Research shows that children who are mentored are likely to do better and behave better in school. One study found that children in a mentoring relationship with an adult are five times more likely to graduate from high school; another found that kids with mentors are 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs and 53 percent less likely to skip school. So it’s not just the young people and their mentors who gain — it’s society as a whole.

Other Headwaters programs (Next Step, which provides help and guidance in pursuing education and training after high school and Farm to Table, education in sustainable agriculture with local farmers and orchardists as collaborators) are embedded in the schools, noted Headwaters Director Toni Egger. “Starfish is independent of school and grades. Mentors meet the kids on their own turf.”

Referrals to Starfish come from parents, the schools, social services and the kids themselves. Mentoring is not just for troubled kids. “Every child can benefit from a good mentor. They all feel overwhelmed from time to time,” said Clare Turner, who managed Starfish for the past two years. “Every young person is helped by direct attention, a new perspective, an expanded world and guidance in finding the path to success.”

Generally, parents welcome the added support for their children. “There’s never any trespassing on a parent’s prerogative,” said Chasiti Wilkes, the single mom of a child who’s been in Starfish for two years. “Our mentor just wants to help. If I have a problem with Colin, I call John. He goes with what I think is appropriate. He never steps on my toes.”

For her 11-year-old son, John is a positive male influence and a role model, Wilkes added. “This program came along at just the right time for us. As they get older, kids don’t always take their problems to their parents. But when they have that confidence and build that bond, they’ll go to their mentor. They need that extra person to talk to and confide in.”

Mentors are recruited by the director, the program’s Advisory Committee members and the mentoring corps. Sometimes, interested and caring people hear about Starfish and volunteer themselves. No special skills are required. Essentially, it takes willingness to devote time to being a friend and consistency at meeting the commitment.

Mentors, said Beth Hilscher, the current director who took over Starfish in November, “help kids define short- and long-term goals. They listen. They share the best parts of their character.” To accomplish this, Starfish asks for a minimum of two hours a week, year-round, but most mentors give upward of four hours, often seeing their young friends twice a week during the school year and spending entire days together in the summer.

There’s the required background check, and then mentors get their initial training from the director, one on one. Starfish Advisory Committee members — all volunteers and many of them former teachers — help with orientation and are on-call for guidance and assistance when there’s a need for specific expertise and experience. In addition, they serve as liaisons with the schools and social services.

Continual support comes from roundtable gatherings where mentors celebrate successes and tackle problems together. Hilscher makes home visits and does lengthy interviews with Starfish-bound children and prospective mentors for insight into mutual interests and compatible personalities.

“It’s a very precise process, not haphazard at all. We’re matchmakers, looking for the spark that connects,” Hilscher explained. Progress is monitored through monthly reports — informal accounts from mentors of how the time together was spent.

At present, Starfish has 16 children paired with mentors, and more are waiting for partners to be found. “We have a real need for more male mentors, in particular,” Hilscher noted.

Last summer, the program expanded to include summer camps for 11 Starfish kids. The instigation came from growing awareness of the learning loss that happens when youngsters don’t have the opportunity for productive and engaging pursuits and instead spend summer vacation playing video games and watching TV.

“Summer camp gives children a break from the school routine in a safe setting with fun, games and enrichment activities,” noted Clare Turner, who launched the new initiative. “These programs have the potential to help reverse summer learning loss and increase educational equity,” she said, citing research from John Hopkins University.

The kids don’t know that, of course. Take nature camp, for instance. They were too busy building with bamboo, getting dizzy on rope swings, acting, singing and dancing “Gleefully” in plays, spying on snakes and salamanders, turning wood into charcoal and sassafras leaves into tea and damming the river to create a swimming hole. For some, it was their first night in a tent, their first moonlight hike. They didn’t realize they were combating summer learning loss. They thought it was all in fun.

Steve and Markeith

Steve Carroll and Markeith Kerns have developed a mentoring relationship that has been beneficial to the young man.

“It’s hard to explain what mentoring is,” says Beth Hilscher, director of Starfish. “Every mentor has a unique relationship with their child; every mentor chooses to do different things and relate in a different way. There is no cookie cutter approach, no one right way to be a friend. Mentors care. They’re open-minded. They help put problems in perspective.”

The mentors who widened Steve Carroll’s world were the catalysts for his involvement with Starfish. He grew up in an insular Illinois community where there wasn’t much inspiration for big dreams. “Then one of my mentors took me to the faculty club at the University of Chicago where I met artists, writers and philosophers.” It was a profound lesson in the broader opportunities waiting beyond the limits of his little hometown. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Carroll acknowledged. With that deep appreciation for the power of a mentor to unlock the potential and nurture the talent of a child, he was easily persuaded to volunteer, first with the Headwaters Foundation as treasurer, then with Starfish.

As for Markeith Kerns, “my sister had a mentor, so I wanted one, too!”

The pair began working together nine years ago when Markeith was in third grade at Rappahannock County Elementary School, and they’ve kept going, despite the family’s move just a year later to Fauquier County, where the 18-year-old is now a senior. “The relationship was more important than the geography,” Carroll noted. “We’re friends. That’s the relationship. There’s not a father in the house, and his mom wanted that influence. Through all the teen years, he’s always been eager to meet with a little old white man with gray hair!”

“It’s fun to hear stories from old folks!” Markeith joked. Continuing in a more serious tone, he described his mentor as “somebody to look up to and talk to . . . I go to Steve with home problems, school problems and concerns I have about myself and the world around me. If Steve can’t answer my questions, he looks for the resources that can.”

They hike, ride bikes, go for walks with Carroll’s dogs and visit museums, talking all the while. Conversations happen over lunch at a restaurant or over chores at Carroll’s farmette. “It’s great to have a helper who’s 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds!” added the retired attorney from the Department of Justice. And at the Carroll’s place in Slate Mills, chores are not a chore, Markeith confirmed. Instead, it’s a treat to tend to the family horse or keep an eye on the pile of burning brush as they hunker down to chat around the bonfire. Some days, they pile into the car to explore the back roads through Rappahannock and Fauquier. “But mostly, we just hang out and talk,” Carroll said.

They often get inquisitive looks when they’re out and about, as passers-by try to figure out the connection between Steve and the tall African-American kid with cornrows, but otherwise, their racial difference hasn’t been an issue.

Not that they ignore the societal divisions ignited too often by race. Carroll remembered the noose that was hung dangling from a tree on Rt. 522 at the Hazel River. “It bugged me every time I saw it, so one day when we were driving by, I said to Markeith, ‘Let’s get that down.’” It took almost three hours to remove the ugly symbol, and it provided an opening for serious and heartfelt talk of hate and racism. Markeith ended up keeping the noose as a souvenir, a reminder of what’s been overcome.

“When he was young — maybe in fourth grade — I took Markeith to an exhibit at the American History Museum on integration in the South and civil rights,” Carroll recalled. “He was looking puzzled so I asked him what was going on. ‘I’m not either one — black or white,’ Markeith said. And those are the only times race has come up.”

“Color doesn’t make a difference to who you are,” the teenager affirmed.

Kids being kids, other problems do arise. According to Markeith, “School definitely has its ups and downs.” But he knows he has to stick it out to get where he wants to be, which is college to study graphic design and computer technology. So when the downs come, Markeith’s mom often calls Carroll to ask for his help in resolving issues. In those instances, the Starfish team is there as a resource. “They don’t send you out on your own,” Carroll noted.
Mentors are trained before they start working with their charges, and more importantly, they can always call on advisory board members for guidance. But the best support may come in the roundtables for mentors held quarterly at the Link. “The shared experiences are especially beneficial,” Carroll said. “I’ve never been to a roundtable when we didn’t have a spirited discussion of real problems and real help.”

For Markeith, mentoring has been “a great opportunity to learn different things.” His mom lacks the time and the resources to explore broader opportunities for him and with him, “so I’m thankful for an adult in my life to teach me and learn from.”

As for Steve, it’s been equally enriching. “Mentoring is the opportunity of a lifetime. It keeps me young. It keeps me engaged. I’ve made a friend for life. ” He paused to flash a big smile across the table at that lifetime friend: “And I’ve learned a lot about rap music from Markeith!”

Next week: Meet Kayla and Susan, C.J. and Sam