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Mentors Needed For Leading Roles In City Kids' Lives

March 5, 2005

Every so often, Orlando Wright gets a phone call from a bank executive in Rhode Island. Tracey May is just checking in, seeing how the Hartford teenager he once mentored is doing.

Wright, a 26-year-old clinician, is a University of Connecticut graduate who lives in the city and longs to scratch an entrepreneurial itch. He credits May with helping him navigate the college application process several years back, and in being a sounding board for the things that pass through a young man's mind - from girls to schoolwork.

So, no need to ask why Wright has been a Big Brother mentor for the last six years in a city where African American and Latino male role models have to step up.

"I wanted to return the favor," Wright says. "I had mentors, and I appreciated it. And I thought some young man out there would appreciate it too." Wright and Eric, the 14-year-old he mentors, go to restaurants, hang out and play games, and sometimes work on schoolwork. Wright even developed an academic incentive program that seems to be working."

"I pay $10 for A's; $5 for B's. ... I don't pay for C's," he says with a laugh.

Raised by his grandparents and then his mother, Wright has a background similar to many in our urban centers. The father is not in the picture. And while mentors can't fully fill the void of an absent dad, they can serve as examples of how a young man can lead a productive life.

After another spate of violence in Hartford, a clarion call echoed for a stronger male presence in a community in which women head half of the households. There are more honorable men out there worth emulating than most folks suspect.

They aren't entertainers or sports celebrities, just everyday guys trying to live a wholesome life, like 26-year-old Carlton Smith, who works in the insurance business. He volunteers about 10 hours a week, teaching basketball and life skills to a bunch of kids in a north Hartford Salvation Army center.

"It's a natural thing for children to be looking for role models," says Laura Green, executive director of Connecticut's Nutmeg Big Brother Big Sister program. "And they're going to find them, and if we don't do something to help them find a good role model, they're going to pick someone themselves."

Film producer Spike Lee kept it real with his standing-room-only audience this week at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford. Lee said that too often our young urban men are more inclined to connect with thug life than family life.

Around the region, there are programs designed to help young people make smart choices. They rely heavily on volunteers, folks with character and commitment.

David Norman is the mentoring coordinator for the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. He's looking for mentors to guide wayward, but redeemable, young people.

Sadiq Ali, who founded a successful all-boys academic academy at Fox Middle School in Hartford, will run an all-boys after-school leadership initiative at a new college preparatory magnet high school that opens next fall. The Governor's Prevention Partnership Program features mentoring geared toward the major cities and other communities.

The Salvation Army's Northend Worship and Community Center in Hartford teaches etiquette and social skills to boys and girls in kindergarten to eighth grade.

"We're trying to bridge the gap between mainstream America and the disenfranchised," says Capt. Travis Lock, pastor at the church. "And one way that we want to do that is by teaching social skills and social graces. There was a time in America when good manners and etiquette would open a lot of doors for you."

That's where the mentors come in.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program has a waiting list of 115 Hartford youths who need to be matched with an adult.

Lew Brown, the retired NBC-30 news man who lives in Hartford, is expected to be one of those new mentors. He applied after hearing former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, who was speaking in Hartford last month, challenge African American men to get involved in their communities.

Brown, 63, has served as a de facto mentor and sounding board for dozens in Greater Hartford. He took Goode's comments to heart.

"You can't just talk the talk," he said. "You've got to walk the walk."

Or else, our young folks can be led astray.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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