Mentor Gene Hale and his "Little Brother" Tyler.
Every hour in Tennessee, a child is abused or neglected. Every 35 minutes, a child is born into poverty. Tennessee ranks 36th in the nation for children living at or below the poverty level with 45% enrolled in the Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Programs. In Knox County alone, 365 students are homeless, living in shelters, in cars, or on the streets. Among Tennessee fourth graders, 74% read below grade level, and 76% score below grade level in math. Only 60% of high school students in Tennessee graduate.
In one month, the faces behind these statistics will converge in our schools.
Pundits and preachers blame these alarming numbers on everything from poverty and race to families, sin, and God.
Beyond the sound bytes and applause lines, however, one solution changes children’s lives. By offering the gift of time, volunteer mentors make a difference one child at a time. Through mentoring, caring adults establish long-term one-on-one relationships with children who do not have nurturing family support. Mentors cross the barriers of race, economics, and literacy. Through the common kinship of the heart, they provide help when a child or teenager needs love the most. And the results are impressive: Studies indicate that children in a mentoring relationship are 46% less likely to use drugs (minorities 70% less likely), 27% less likely to use alcohol, and 33% less likely to hit someone. School attendance of mentored children increases 50%, resulting in improved grades.
This fall, I am calling on East Tennesseans of faith to mentor at-risk students. Many congregations already serve as volunteer mentors in their neighborhood schools throughout the school year. I am convinced that more East Tennessee churches can mobilize volunteers to mentor in elementary, middle, and high schools. As people of faith, we have been trained in the great commission. Now it’s time to live out the great commandment. By setting aside the desire to proselyte and by respecting the boundaries of church and state, we can meet the needs of deserving children. We can demonstrate love in action.
My church has done just that through KidsHope USA, Buckner International, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Knoxville at First Baptist’s neighborhood school, South Knoxville Elementary. We do not visit campus to sell our brand of faith. Instead, we go with open hearts, listening and providing hope to children. Our philosophy is to follow the school’s rules and to read, tutor, assist, play….to do whatever dedicated educators and social workers ask of us. I am proud to have worked with South Knoxville Elementary’s faculty and administrators. Principal Roy Smith who retired this year acknowledges the difference between the grades of at-risk students who were mentored and those who did not have that privilege.
Imagine the possibilities if every local elementary, middle, and high school principal had mentors available to devote time to children. What could happen if every at-risk child in Knoxville had a friend who cared not just about his grades but about his life? Not only would more children avoid being left behind, but the lives of the mentors would be enhanced. In working with my “little brother” at South Knox, I have received the greatest benefit from the relationship. My life has been enriched because I served a child whose father is in prison and saw this little boy’s face light up each day I met with him.
Perhaps at the end of your life you would like to say, “I made a difference with one person beyond my immediate family.” Three weeks from now, you can begin working toward that goal. On October 7, I’ll be hosting a group at First Baptist downtown to challenge more people of faith to become faithful mentors, and everyone is welcome to come and learn how your congregation can serve. Together we can change statistics into solutions.