May 12th, 2020
As with so many things, the pandemic put an abrupt end to a special mentoring program involving Bethel College students, but they won’t forget it any time soon.
Seven young African-American men volunteered at Chisholm Middle School in Newton during the 2019-20 school year (two are repeats from the previous year).
They found out about the program from school social worker Ralita Cheeks, who had the opportunity to “give the best 30-second speech of my life” when the Bethel football team showed up at the school on the annual fall Service Day two years ago.
The middle school boys enter the program (started by a predecessor of Cheeks) voluntarily, with signed releases from parents or guardians.
“[The college students] check in with them on grades and just talk about what’s going on in life,” Cheeks says. “Sometimes it’s going to come better from a young guy than from me.”
Joseph Winfield, a graduating senior from Edmond, Okla., was in his second year of mentoring.
“We provide an open space for them to give us an insight into what they’re missing in their education, which helps us mold our program to do what they need,” he says.
“We didn’t do school work at first – we talked about life. But then we find out they’re struggling with their school work, so we’ll [help] with that. When they feel successful with that, it helps [in other areas].
“We implement a good grade/success program, [using] a strengths-based perspective. We don’t focus on the negative things they do. We address them, but then figure out ways they can improve themselves and also find out what they’re good at and how to motivate them.
“You need to give him an opportunity to shine. It’s meant seeing a decrease from 3 to 1 to no Fs.”
“We set goals for them, and they will change them in a week,” says Terrell Marshall, graduating senior from Tulsa. “I saw their willingness to open to us. They will tell us more than they will the teacher.”
Says Derrick Hudson, a junior from DeSoto, Texas, “I’ve seen confidence [grow] in some of the kids. When we get a new kid, they’re kind of hesitant to speak, and then in a couple of weeks, they’re the ones talking the most – it’s hard to get them to be quiet.”
It’s not only the kids who have changed during the course of this mentoring program.
Winfield credits the experience in part with cementing his major, social work.
“I got into the program because the other guys told me it would be a fun thing to do,” he says, “and it [took] me from a business major to social work.
“Working with these kids [has] helped me see what I want to do in the future – anything to do with social work, but especially with kids.”
He continues, “I feel like all of us have seen ourselves in the kids we mentor. They’ve gotten in trouble for the same things we did at that age. That helps the connection even more.
“We tell them our stories, so they understand we’re not here with a façade. It’s real life.”
“Not only do you see the kids grow, you see your friends grow,” adds Amondre Street, a junior from Dallas. “I get to see my friends acting in a way I don’t see every day. These are future fathers, future teachers.”
He admits he “didn’t know if I wanted to do the program. I didn’t like working with children – it wore me out. [But] this was life-changing for me and for the kids. Working with this group was great.”
Marshall says, “I’m a business major but what I want to do long-term is help people on a deeper level.”
He says it has deeply affected him to “see that real-life problems have no age limit, and [see] some of the stuff these kids go through, how they are affected at an early age, how their home life affects everything else.
“It’s been great to see the changes.”
Says David Wullf-Cochrane, a graduating senior from Edmond, “There are things I experienced growing up that some of these kids are experiencing.
“Why not use my status as a role model to help influence them with morals and ethics, prepare them for life, facing trials and tribulations – to help equip them with skills to help better themselves?”
“Seeing how much these kids have changed in the time we’ve been with them makes me want to stay around and be in their life,” says Winfield.
“I wish I could have had a mentor [like this] when I was growing up, to show no matter what your struggle is, you can be successful.
“We have the ability to pull out the best in everyone we interact with. We can meet this kid and all the teachers are like, ‘He’s so bad, he’s so hard to get to.’ We’ll spend 40 minutes with them, and they open up.
“They understand where we’re coming from. It’s crazy, the ability we have to [affect] someone.”
Street adds, “It’s not just the school environment, it’s also their home environment. I admire them, for the things they [overcome].”
Hudson notes that the mentoring program gives the middle-school students “the ability to realize that some of the things they did, we also did, and that ‘Maybe I can change and I can become something.’
“It gives them confidence that ‘I could be like these guys. I could be a mentor, too.’”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says Wullf-Cochrane, “I think God put us in this position to use what we have to help the next generation be better. To let them know they can be something.
“They hear so much: ‘You’re not going to be anything.’ We want to be that driving force [that lets] them know: ‘We’re behind you. We’ll help you out however we can.’”
“We want our students to succeed,” says Cheeks. “The wise person leaves something behind, a seed planted. It’s important for someone to sow that seed, and then others will water it. The Bethel students give their time, and they plant the seeds.”
Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel is the highest ranked Kansas private college, at #12, in Washington Monthly, Top 200 Bachelor’s Colleges; ranks at #23 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest; is Zippia.com’s highest ranked Kansas small college with the highest earning graduates; stands at #57 among 829 U.S. colleges and universities listed by lendEDU as “Best for Financial Aid”; has the #10 RN-to-BSN program in Kansas according to RNtoBSN.com; and earned its second-straight NAIA Champions of Character Five-Star gold award, based on student service and academic achievement, all for 2019-20. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu Melanie Zuercher