Thursday, September 23, 1999

Just being a mentor makes you special

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        She was going to teach me in-line skating. I was going to teach her to ride a horse. At least that was my plan.

        It began last spring, when I signed up for the mentoring program of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative (CYC). Frankly, I was looking for an easy path to self-improvement. My friend Susan Abernethy Frank has been a mentor for several years. A public relations consultant, she's a good mom, a successful career woman and an attentive wife. She also looks great and laughs a lot.

        I thought there might be some connection.

        Then, of course, I couldn't help thinking of John Pepper, who has been a mentor for the past 10 years. Until last month, he also was in charge of Procter & Gamble, which sounds like a pretty good gig. So, maybe hanging out with one of these kids is the way to the corner office.

        Judge Nathaniel Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit says it's even better than that. He calls it “a way of getting to heaven on the cheap.”

        Chairman of the CYC's executive committee, Judge Jones says, “It's not a taxing burden.”

        Success and a ticket to heaven.

        Sign me up.

Who's in trouble?
        First step was a training session at the Mayerson Academy in Corryville. It was nearly painless. In fact, I had a pretty good time. A woman there offered to cut my hair, and one of the men gave me a stick of gum. I'm not sure I want to know what I did to deserve either one.

        Anyway, the program's director, Miriam West, gave me the best thing of all. She made me feel valuable.

        “We are so quick to lean back and say, "Well, they're in trouble.' The schools, the kids, the teachers,” she said. “I am here to tell you that when our kids are in trouble, we are all in trouble.”

        She told us we don't have to be the leader of a multinational corporation or a distinguished judge to qualify as a mentor. We don't have to be brilliant. As you can imagine, this was a big relief to me. I was afraid somebody would expect me to help them pass chemistry or calculus and we would both flunk.

        “You are not signing up to be a tutor,” she said. “Although some mentors have helped their students in that way. Think of yourself as a coach, a role model, a special friend, an advocate.”

        You can sign up by e-mailing or call 475-4959. They'll take you by the hand. Almost literally.

        After nearly 10 years of operation, they've got it beautifully organized, and the program has served thousands of Cincinnati public school students. But there are more kids who want mentors than there are adults who have signed up.

        “The goal is 2,000 mentors by the year 2000,” Miriam says. They are 800 short.

        That means that 800 kids are standing in line. Maybe more. And, by the way, students are not dragged into the program because they have bad grades or are discipline problems. These are kids who have asked for help.

Keeping in touch
        The girl assigned to me, for instance, is a whole lot better student than I ever was. She also has two very nice, very involved parents. All she is asking from me is to “just give me a bigger life.”

        She wants to know what is out there besides school work and a minimum-wage summer job. “I want to have an outside someone to look upon when I need help.”

        We talk on the phone. We e-mail. She came down to visit me at the office, making me feel like a big shot. We are planning to try the ballet and the opera. And, of course, the horse and the skates. She is struggling with a killer science course and doesn't have a lot of spare time.

        Meanwhile, we talk. And laugh.

        I don't know if I'll be a good mentor. I'm still learning. But, in case you are reading this, mentee of mine, I want you to know that already you have given me a bigger life.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.