Dani Kocur has overseen the Ignite mentoring program since 2011 and has seen it grow from fewer than 20 mentors to now 100% capacity at 73 mentors.
Our mentoring program, Ignite, started by accident. One fall afternoon, a teacher at the local medical school called and said, "I've been meaning to call for months. My name is Rob, and I have a weird schedule on Mondays between classes. I'm tired of sitting in Barnes and Noble to pass the time. Is there anything I can do for you guys on Mondays between 4:00 and 6:00?"
As is happened, we did. There was a boy named Ja'Vuntae enrolled in Fortress After School who cried daily upon arrival. Nothing we could do seemed to help. He hated being here, and no one could get through to him to help him express why he was so upset each afternoon. He was exhausting our teachers and taking time from the other students.
"Yes!" exclaimed Stacy, who was running our fledgling volunteer program at the time. She described the problems with Ja'Vuntae, then said, "You could hang out with him on Mondays and give our teachers a break." Rob laughed nervously and said, "That's not exactly what I had in mind, but I'll come Monday and we'll see how it goes.
On their first meeting, Ja’Vuntae, in his usual gloomy and tearful mood, and Rob - a quiet, shy, unassuming man - barely spoke. Concerned that Rob was in over his head, Stacy joined them at the table where they sat to coach Rob along and help him get Ja'Vuntae to open up. As the unlikely pair sat there on opposite sides of the table molding Play-Doh and avoiding eye contact, Stacy tried to help. “What’s wrong, Ja’Vuntae? Did something happen at school?” she asked. Nothing. They both continued to roll their separate Play-Doh.
“Did you get in a fight with someone?”
“Did you get in trouble at home?” Silent tears continued to roll down Ja'Vuntae's face, but he offered no answers.
PLOP! Rob wordlessly dropped his Play-Doh creation in front of Ja’Vuntae.
“Easy,” Ja’Vuntae said, and he guessed immediately what Rob had made. Then Ja’Vuntae pushed his Play-Doh toward Rob.
“Is it…a ball and a bat?” Rob asked. Ja’Vuntae frowned and shook his head.
“Is it…a stick and a rock?” Frustrated, another tear rolled down Ja’Vuntae’s face.
"Man, Ja'Vuntae," said Rob. "I give up. You're just too good at this Play-Doh thing. You'll have to tell me what it is."
“No! That’s me and that’s a bush. Every day, my Mom says to sit next to that bush after school and she'll pick me up, but if she doesn't come, I have to ride with Fortress.”
Humbled, Stacy walked away and let Rob and Ja’Vuntae finish their time together. Rob obviously knew what he was doing. He knew exactly how to ignite a positive fire in Ja'Vuntae. And it was that moment that Stacy knew that every kid in our building needed a Rob. For the first time all year, Ja'Vuntae was opening up and trusting someone enough to share his sorrow and his pain and his disappointment. For the first time, there was an adult whose word meant something to Ja'Vuntae, as Mr. Rob showed up week after week after week to spend that two hours connecting and building a relationship with the young man who had been unreachable before.
This year for the first time in our history, every single eligible child at Fortress - 73 of them as we write this - has a mentor. That means for one hour a week, every child gets special, personalized, one-on-one time with an adult who cares deeply for them and feels called to be a positive, encouraging, and Christ-like presence in their life. The powerful impact that this makes is hard to measure, but we see it every day. We see it when Bo takes Gabriel’s hands and prays with him when he’s upset. We see it when Brooklyn and Katie sit across the table from each other making a gingerbread house and singing Christmas carols. We see it when Brandon gets excited to read the next chapter in his book with Rusty. When Zac calls his mentor his big brother. When Morgan boasts about the new recipe she and her mentor made this week. When Kelton asks his mentor when they can do another Bible study. When Kyla proudly helps throw a baby shower for her mom with the help of her mentor Lannett. On and on and on I could go, with unique stories for each unique child, but the common theme among all of them comes straight from the mouths of our kids. We recently asked them, “When you spend time with your mentor, how do you feel?” An overwhelming majority of them simply replied, “Loved.”
As valuable as our mentors are, it's not only the Ignite program that makes these tremendous impacts on our kids. ALL of our volunteers leave lasting impressions and make our kids feel valued. From the group who comes every Thursday without fail to provide dinner, to the high school students who spend two days per month with our preK and Kindergarteners, to the handymen who are in and out of our building replacing light bulbs and installing desks, to the groups who arrive with donations and hands-on projects and materials to host Family Fun nights. Every single volunteer who walks through our front door makes a difference, Simply put, we could not do this ministry without you. We are incredibly grateful for those of you who give your time.
But these programs, though comprised entirely of volunteers, do come with a price tag. Consider the Ignite program alone. Art supplies, sports equipment, field trips, background checks, insurance, training programs, recruiting tools and about 25 hours a week put in by our Volunteer Coordinator specifically to manage the mentoring program – they add up to a cost of about $25 per month per mentor. $287 a year for a child to have these moments. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Our kids are not only told that they have value, worth, promise, potential – they are shown it every week by their mentors. The tagline for our mentoring program is “invest an hour, ignite a life.” You can be a part of that investment. We were blessed this year to match 73 kids with their very own Mr. Rob. In 2016, we need to have at least 73 kids sponsored again. Your monthly gift of only $25 will ensure that our passionate volunteers continue to have the opportunity to IGNITE powerful change in the kids we love so much. Please give.