ENID, Okla. — A trio of Enid volunteers want others to know how much impact mentoring can have on the life of a young child, and to encourage others to help local teachers and their students.
Local men Steve Wagner, Curt Gilberston and Ralph Phillips started mentoring three years ago after a chance encounter with Stan Brownlee, a longtime mentor to students at Carver Early Childhood Center.
Wagner said he and Brownlee struck up a conversation one day at the Denny Price Family YMCA, and Brownlee soon turned the conversation to his work mentoring area youth.
Wagner said he was impacted by Brownlee’s account of how many of the children needed positive male role models and how pressed the teachers were to provide one-on-one time with the students.
He made some inquiries into how he could help, which led him to Chris Smith, early childhood director for Enid Public Schools. Smith related that the schools needed “10 more guys just like” Brownlee.
Wagner took that challenge to a devotional Bible study group in which he participated, along with Gilbertson and Phillips.
“We had been talking about how to make a difference in the community, so I went to those guys,” Wagner said. “Before long, we had six of us from our group signed up.”
Getting on the same bus to help children
Phillips said it was hard not to get excited about the mentoring process once he had talked to Smith.
“You can just feel the passion pouring out of her when she talks about the kids and helping them,” Phillips said. “You just can’t help wanting to get on that same bus with her and help the kids.”
The three men ended up volunteering on the same day, and for the last three years they’ve met for lunch every Wednesday of the school year before heading to Carver to mentor kids in the four year-old program.
“It just worked out that the three of us would meet for lunch and then go over to Carver and work in three different classrooms,” Gilbertson said. “It’s been neat to be able to do this together.”
Gilbertson said the teachers at Carver do “amazing work” with the students, but due to time and resource constraints can’t always spend time one-on-one with students who need extra help, or just need some time and attention from a supportive, positive adult role model.
“It’s amazing how the kids are just ripe for learning,” Gilbertson said. “They’re learning something no matter where they are, and Carver does a great job of putting them in a healthy, positive environment for learning.”
Gilbertson said mentors aren’t there to replace the teacher, or parents, but rather to provide additional emotional support to kids in need.
“We’re not there to teach them lessons, or morals and values,” Gilbertson said. “It’s just about giving them time and letting them know they’re important.”
Gilbertson said mentors have the opportunity to shape a crucial time period in a young child’s life.
“It’s incredible to see what they learn from the first day to the end of the year,” Gilbertson said. “That one year is a fifth of their lifetime, and it’s incredible to see the difference that happens in what’s, to us, a short period of time.”
Gaining as much as they’ve given
Phillips said having extra attention in the classroom provides support to both the students and the teacher.
“If there’s someone who can help give individual attention to kids — and help leverage the teachers’ time available, whether it’s subject-specific or kid-specific — it can have a huge impact,” he said.
That individual attention can be particularly important when a child has suffered trauma or loss at home.
Wagner related a story of one child who had been happy and smiling one week and was crying and inconsolable the next. It turned out the child’s father had gone to prison, and he no longer had a father-figure at home. Wagner said he spent time, one-on-one, with the child each week for several months, providing a presence the child missed at home.
“We just really bonded and connected,” Wagner said. “After a few weeks he was grabbing my hand coming out of the classroom and had a smile on his face.”
Wagner said the teachers do a great of teaching lessons to the kids and often just need someone to take individual time with some of the children.
“I might not have taught him any ABCs, but I could be a male influence when he didn’t have one at home,” Wagner said.
The three men agreed they’ve all gained at least as much from the kids as they’ve given.
“It was easy to buy into the idea of helping the kids,” Phillips said. “But, once you start doing it, the impact of helping them on yourself is cool.”
Gilbertson said the reactions of the kids each week is its own reward.
“They light up,” Gilbertson said. “When you walk into that room...they all turn from what they’re doing and yell your name. It’s pretty neat, and I think the kids really look forward to that time.”
But, while mentoring is rewarding, the trio also agreed they don’t do it for themselves: it’s about the kids, the teachers and the community.
“This really isn’t about us,” Gilbertson said. “We just want there to be some benefit for Carver and the community, and maybe relate that to others who might be inspired to step up for the schools and the kids.”
Phillips said the reason to volunteer is summed up in a quote widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”
“I just feel a Christian value to giving and not needing anything in return,” Phillips said. “We’re just there to enrich the teachers and the kids. It’s a small price to pay to give of my time, and the payoff is multiplied through the teachers and the kids.”