08/17/2010 05:08 PM EDT
By Elspeth Lodge
Journal Staff Writer
What would you do if you found a wallet on the ground? Jason Willits, 27, discussed this dilemma with his young protégé, Devin, who was just 9 years old when they met three years ago. They were matched through “Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education,” a community-based mentoring program working to serve the needs of children with parents who are currently or have been incarcerated.
Devin and his buddies had found a wallet on the ground, and they wanted to turn it in to the police –– but instead they left the wallet on the ground, because they say they were afraid the police would think they took it. One major change Willits has seen in Devin since they met is how he views the police.
“He went from being scared of the police to, at one point, wanting to be a police officer.” The two go on scheduled outings twice a month. After Willets found out about his mentees’ fear of the police, “I took him over to the Mounted Police in Roger Williams State Park,” he says. They were given a tour of the station and had a great time.
Willits says he thinks now he is viewed more as a “big brother” than a parental or authority figure, “I don’t think kids respond to that,” he says. “I want him to be comfortable with me, to share things with me, so that I can give him the guidance that he needs.”
One in 40 children has had a parent in, according to RISE, and that group says its purpose is to break the cycle of poverty, crime and addiction that these children are seven times more susceptible to than other children in the area. The children who are in need of mentors are ages 6 to 14.
Willits himself had a mentor growing up — he connected with a childless man at his church who guided him through his adolescence. He fondly recalls working as an intern for his mentor, and to this day, he is still using what he learned in his job as a trust relationship officer at the U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management. “I want to give what was given to me to somebody else,” says Willets. “I had a kind man who showed me the ropes and made a big difference in my life. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Generally, the idea is to guide the child throughout their school years, but “I hope always to be available for him,” says Willets. According to the program’s organizers, volunteers often become very attached to their mentees and take the mentoring seriously –– but more than anything it is consistency that the mentors say the children value most.
He was very shy at first, says Willits of his mentee, but with consistency and time “doing what you said you would, being there when you said you would,” a trust begins to build.
Laura Laramie meets with her protégé, without fail, once a week. She says this is more than the usual for most mentors who generally meet up with their mentees twice a month. But each mentor and mentee figure out what works best for them.
Both Willits and Laramie say that RISE is skilled at finding perfect matches of mentors and mentees. “They do a magic job of matching you,” says Laramie, a recent empty-nester who decided to take on a mentee. “I am astounded at how smart and quick and creative she is.” When the two get together they like to go out to eat, go to the library and swim, among other things.
Laramie is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who makes vintage beads for Laramie Studios, which she sells online. She passed on her love of beads to her mentee who now makes jewelry out of them.
The mentee decided to sell the jewelry, so Laramie works to teach her good business practices. There are also smaller things she learns from Laramie, about littering for example: “One time she asked me if she could throw a candy wrapper on the ground.” says Laramie, who explained to her that candy wrappers are not biodegradable.
Laramie says, in the mentoring system, women are matched up with young girls and men are matched up with young boys; at the moment there is a long waiting list of young boys looking for mentors. Liza Manchester, the RISE Mentor Program Coordinator says that there are around “30 boys and 15 girls” waiting for mentors.
For information about how to become involved with RISE check out riseonline.org or call (401) 421-2010.