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Fueling kids’ dreams by serving as a mentor
by Chuck Gordon

When Adden Howard was 11 years old, his family moved from Atlanta to Chicago. Coming from a relatively laid-back Southern city, he found Chicago’s intensity intimidating.

“Chicago is very tough and rough,” says Howard, who grew into a beefy 6-foot-2 collegiate defensive lineman and will leave Wingate in May as a mentor and role model.

Playing sports helped get him through the transition to a new environment, but so did one of his school counselors, who played chess with Howard and helped him navigate middle and high school.

“He taught me manners and all that,” Howard says. “Then I went and used that in life.”

That type of mentorship has a domino effect. Howard and other Wingate students have spent the past two semesters serving as mentors for elementary- and middle-school students at Title I schools in eastern Union County as part of the University’s Collaborative for the Common Good (CCG). They volunteer with Men and Women in the Making (MWITM), a program coordinated by the nonprofit Heart for Monroe.

As mentors, they teach their young charges how to tie a tie or a scarf, greet someone, compose a proper email, change a tire and much more. As part of the CCG, Wingate professors and students will track the MWITM students’ grades and attendance, as well as less concrete outcomes, to see what kind of effect the program is having. “Do they dream about going to university? Do they dream about jobs? How does that change?” asks Dr. Catherine Wright, a Wingate religion professor and executive director of the Collaborative for the Common Good. “We have surveys developed to take a look at that.”

Wingate student Briana Tompkins chats with students at East Union Middle

Abby Moore, a sixth-grader at East Union Middle School, certainly dreams of going to college. She has come out of her shell during her two years in MWITM and now not only greets customers at her mother’s coffee shop with a firm handshake and a confident “hello” but also has a clearer idea of her future. During one MWITM session, she was asked to list three fields she might enjoy entering when she grows up. “I'm either looking into being a nurse; a Marine biologist, because I love working with animals and I love the ocean; or a wildlife officer,” she says.

And she’ll be less intimidated when she interviews for one of those positions, since she’s also gotten tips on how to fill out a job application and how to carry herself during an interview.

Ginger Walle, director of Heart for Monroe, tells University students that spending an hour at Wingate Elementary or East Union a couple of times a month might seem like a small thing but can have enormous benefits.

Wingate student Adden Howard helps a kid tie a tie

“There’s not a lot of times that you can do things where we go, ‘This is truly life-changing.’ This is,” she says. “Spending the most valuable thing you have, which is your time, with these kids makes a huge difference for them.”

The experience can be illuminating for Wingate students.

“I came because I had to do an hour of community service for my Gateway class,” says Briana Tompkins, a freshman nursing major from Greenwood, South Carolina, “but it really opened my eyes to see that a lot of kids need older people to look up to. I’d like to encourage them to do something after graduation. I’ll be coming back.”

Students in affluent areas are often well equipped to handle their schoolwork and map out their future because they have extensive support systems in place. In more economically depressed areas, such mentorship can be in short supply.

Wright says that, on the North Carolina Schools Report Card system, most schools in eastern Union County have a C or D rating. At East Union Middle, she says, only 30 percent of students are prepared to move from sixth to seventh grade. At Cuthbertson Middle, in the western part of the county, that figure is closer to 80 percent.

“We have to move the needle on our education,” she says. “Yes, you can fly in a lot of technology, but really what they need is time. And they need to dream.”

Howard serves as a valuable role model. An exercise science major with a 3.1 grade-point average, he shows the young students that the college dream is within reach, and the time he spends with them can spur them to become more ambitious.

“You walking through the door is the motivation they need,” Wright said to Howard one day last semester.

“I think sometimes that’s what the kids need, just time,” Howard added.

  • CCG