An Oklahoma City Public Schools elementary student was failing, but now makes Bs thanks to newfound confidence in his reading ability. A former Douglas High School student spiraled into poor decisions after his mom passed away, but now holds a job at Tinker Air Force Base, is married, has bought his first home and volunteers at his alma mater. Eleven Norman middle schoolers developed an augmented reality game on a wristband that they presented to national and international brokers at the annual New York Toy Fair. A metro foster child who’d been in 11 homes and attempted suicide turned her life around, receiving thousands of dollars in college scholarships and graduating from the University of Oklahoma.
These students all have one thing in common: a mentor who showed up consistently to love them unconditionally.
That elementary student benefits from weekly reading tutors and a meal through Oklahoma City nonprofit Whiz Kids. Currently serving 950 first through sixth grade students at 36 locations around the metro, Whiz Kids closes the achievement gap for kids reading below grade level.
The former Douglas High School student gained mentors and life-long friends through Youth for Christ, offering weekly leadership and mentorship programs at nearly 40 metro area middle and high schools. The faith based ministry focuses on building positive relationships with students.
The Norman middle schoolers are members of Loveworks Leadership, Inc., offering experiential learning, leadership and entrepreneurship opportunities to middle and high school students, networking and learning from community leaders and business, like Trifecta Communications, which has mentored the group of students since last summer.
The foster child found hope in a network of supportive mentors and engaging activities through Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County’s after-school program. Through Youth Leadership Exchange, a project of Leadership Oklahoma City, she gained leadership skills and volunteered around the community. She was named the city and state Boys & Girls Clubs Youth of the Year.
Jane Sutter, president & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County, said she loves watching the more than 800 metro kids who make use of their four locations daily grow and flourish under the attention of caring adults.
“Boys & Girls Clubs alumni from around the country were surveyed about their experience, and 54 percent said it literally saved their life,” said Sutter. “Most people don’t realize what a big impact a little intervention can make.”
Why Mentor Britanie Ramirez, director of Whiz Kids Oklahoma, sees that impact every day. Approximately 73 percent of fourth grade students in Oklahoma read below proficiency level, according to Whiz Kids, and Ramirez says whether students can pass their third grade reading test correlates to what they can accomplish in their futures.
“It can literally change the direction of a child’s life,” said Ramirez, who calls Whiz Kids a mentorship program hidden behind literacy. “We give kids confidence as learners.”
Many Whiz Kids volunteers have been active for decades, with some staying connected for years after the program, attending kids’ graduations and weddings.
Brent Wheelbarger, CEO of Trifecta Communications, brought his expertise in emerging technology to Loveworks Leadership students for a week during an experiential learning camp. Not long after, his team decided to make the experience long term, interviewing and selecting students to become part of their start-up business creating augmented reality wristbands. Meeting with students twice a week since, it’s the students who have led the charge in developing the game’s story, drawing concept art, developing 3D models, coding and marketing, all within a limited budget.
“It’s been educational for us to see how these kids see the world,” said Wheelbarger.
Michael Hirsch, executive director of Loveworks, said the current generation has been labeled unfairly, but he sees the goodness of humanity shine through them. He recently hired a former Loveworks participant as a sales coordinator for the organization’s REAL Kitchen company, which created and sells salsa to stores around the metro and is now mentoring younger students.
“Seeing the life change in our students and their eventual desire to give back and pour into younger students restores my hope in the future,” said Hirsch.
Matt Hankinson, director of Youth for Christ Oklahoma, challenges potential mentors to think back on their own awkward teen years to the person who believed in and supported them. Though Hankinson says his parents were top-notch, it was his own mentor, Terry, who showed him that he could live a clean life and still have fun.
“He was an outside voice speaking wisdom to me,” said Hankinson, who believes everyone is called to mentor and share life with young people because it allows all parties to grow.
Shawn Johnson, Youth for Christ campus coordinator for Douglas middle and high schools, says many potential mentors overthink it, feeling they are too busy to develop a relationship with a young person.
“Just bring them alongside you,” said Johnson. “Take them grocery shopping with you, show them how you love your wife and kids, how you balance your checkbook.”
Though Johnson says students on the east side of the metro may have a reputation, at the end of the day, they are all just kids. And Sutter says that’s what makes it fun.
“They have a spirit and curiosity that we lose as adults when we get stuck in the day-today,” said Sutter, who is still connected to the young woman she mentored throughout her childhood, now pursuing a master’s degree. “You feel renewed and blessed by a child who looks up to you. And they say the funniest things.”
Why Kids Need Mentors
“All kids, regardless of their backgrounds, need positive adult influences and role models from beyond their family in order to be successful and grow up as strong individuals who are involved in community,” said Sutter. “Even kids with awesome parents need other adults in their life encouraging them, helping them dream big and supporting them along the way.”
For financially challenged families, parents don’t often have the time or resources to invest a lot of attention into individual kids. Because students can only visualize what they know is possible, they benefit tremendously from being shown the world outside their school and home.
“We take these kids on college visits, to restaurants to eat different foods, to check out different sports, to fish, go horseback riding or tubing,” said Hankinson. “So many of them are boxed in and we want to show them how big the world is and that it’s theirs for the taking.”
Johnson has watched his mentee develop from an eighth grader he says was a bit of a clown into a senior taking charge of the Youth for Christ core leadership group at his school, leading the opening prayer each week and planning to attend Langston this fall. The knowledge that he has people who care about him in addition to his family has given him the confidence to flourish. Hirsch says when mentors help students discover their purpose and passions, it influences every aspect of their lives.
“When you begin to discover your purpose, it impacts academic performance, behavior in school, an attitude of respect in the home, the way they interact with siblings,” said Hirsch. “Finding your purpose and passion gives you a hope you carry with you the rest of your life.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters, Oklahoma City
Big Brothers Big Sisters, Norman
- Seeking mentors to meet monthly or more with a child, out in the community or at the child’s school
- Kids can be enrolled online to be matched with a mentor
Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma County
- Seeking one-on-one mentors to meet weekly with a child, as well as volunteers to participate in club activities with groups of children as schedule allows, at Memorial Park and school club sites
Loveworks Leadership, Inc.
- Seeking mentors for weekly after- or before-school activities and to present leadership lessons, summer experiential project learning and businesses, business leaders and entrepreneurs to help students hone business skills
- Students ages 11-14 can apply online
Whiz Kids Oklahoma
- Seeking weekly reading tutors at sites around metro, as well as churches and organizations to host sites
Youth for Christ Oklahoma City
- Seeking mentors for middle and high school students
- List of participating schools for students can be found online
Youth Leadership Exchange
- Students in grades 9-12 can apply online for leadership skills and community service class