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Carl Wernicke: Be A Mentor


Working as a newspaper writer for 35 years imbued me with a healthy dose of cynicism. Why? It’s not just all the bad news. Reporters and editors are exposed to far worse stuff than ever gets into the news pages, and unfortunately we learn a lot about the dark side of human nature.

But the flip side is that we are also exposed to a lot of good news. Especially the incredible network of people who do the selfless, hard work of community volunteerism. And one thing I learned in over three decades of reporting on and writing about the Pensacola area is that we have an incredible volunteer network. For every high-profile volunteer you read about, there are 20 more doing the anonymous hard work required to support good causes.

One of those causes was back in the news recently: mentoring students in our local schools. As a mentor myself, I can tell you that there are few more rewarding things you can do than to be a mentor to a young boy or girl who needs you.

The sad fact is that our schools are full of children who themselves are full of promise, but who come from difficult backgrounds, to say the least. They are desperate for successful adults to show interest in them. One of the more poignant parts of being a mentor was hearing classmates of the children I took on asking if I would be a mentor to them, too.

About 10 years ago I began mentoring a boy in kindergarten at Hallmark Elementary, a great neighborhood school that is now closed. This school year he entered high school with good grades, an interest in reading, showing promise that  he will be a responsible and successful adult. I have watched him develop a work ethic and learn about life.

Now, it’s not always like that. My first venture into mentoring was with a young man in middle school already headed for a fall. I visited his housing development apartment one afternoon to find his mother and a friend drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, and showing little interest in this stranger who showed up to drive off with her son. He was arrested for selling drugs soon after.

My second venture ended when I showed up at the apartment of my elementary school student to find the family gone, who knows where. Again, the mother never showed any curiosity about me, despite the fact I showed up regularly to take her son who knows where. I felt as if the child was lost before I ever met him.

The third time, I asked for the youngest child I could be paired with, to have a chance at making an impact before he was lost. I was paired with a bright, funny, engaging boy who I have been rewarded to watch grow up with promise. It helped that while his home situation was incredibly challenging, he had strong support from a tight family.

There are all sorts of ways to volunteer. I was drawn to mentoring because I was looking for a way to have person-to-person impact. It’s not for everyone. But if writing a check or donating food or clothes leaves you yearning for a more personal way of helping your community, contact your local school district office and see if mentoring might be for you. I think you’ll find out that it’s hard to say who benefits more – you or the child you mentor.