Kids Hope: June/July 2017

For many years I sat in our church in Glen Ellyn, IL, listening to my fellow parishioners talk about their work with disadvantaged children. Their stories tugged at my heart and I always thought to myself – that’s something I could do once I retired. Last year that time came, and my wife Barbara and I moved to Holland. While visiting Hope Church last summer, once again I heard that same calling from Barb Joldersma as she talked about the Kids Hope USA program. I contacted her later that afternoon.

Though I wasn’t yet a church member, Barb welcomed me into the program. A week later I attended a training session for new mentors, during which Barb and Vicki Rumpsa led us through a Kids Hope notebook that I continue to go back to from time to time. They prepared us well for what was to follow, and over the course of this past school year I saw virtually everything we talked about during the training come to pass.

The only real suspense was who would I get? A boy? A girl? How old? Having three grandchildren in the 2nd, 4th, and 7th grades, I had some idea of the possibilities. But they are hardly disadvantaged children, and I was to be assigned an at-risk child. Then Barb told me I was paired with a 5th grade boy at Vanderbilt Charter Academy, and almost immediately I realized I had no idea what to expect. If he was a truly troubled child, a 10 year old boy could be a handful.

The following Tuesday afternoon, I went to the school, checked in at the office, and headed off to the 5th grade classroom. Any concerns I might have had melted away within minutes of meeting my Kids Hope charge. We’re taught to respect the privacy of the children, so I’ll just refer to this marvelous young boy as Robbie.

I’d carefully planned our first session together, minute by minute, but quickly learned I needed to be more flexible, and that a natural flow to our time together would emerge. Every session is a mixture of academic and creative play activities, and relationship building. At first Robbie was heavily focused on getting help with his school work. As the weeks rolled along we seemed to be spending more and more time just getting to know each other, and I introduced Robbie to a new “special friend”, my prayer partner, Dorothy Sherburne. Dorothy and Robbie corresponded back and forth in a notebook throughout the year, asking and answering questions and sharing stories. Robbie was always looking forward to hearing from that “girl” friend of mine.

Typically, we’d always start with his school work, as I preached the virtue of handling must-do things first, before any play time. Remember that TV quiz show – Are You Smarter than a 5thGrader? There were times I wasn’t so sure. You’d be surprised at some of the things they are learning, and that’s not even counting the so called new math. Robbie was always amused when I would tell him I wasn’t quite sure of an answer, and he’s totally convinced that I can’t subtract. More than once I would awaken during the night when the right answer would finally pop into my mind.

By the middle of the school year Robbie’s focus had swung from academics to play. Kids Hope maintains a cabinet full of games and we played most of them. A favorite memory is recalling Robbie telling me he didn’t want me to let him win a game of Connect Four – he said “I want you to come at me, hard”. The fact is that he won many of the games we played despite my honest efforts.

Throughout the year I tried to find creative ways to make learning fun. We’d read stories about his favorite sport, soccer, in the sports pages of the Holland Sentinel. We filled out March Madness brackets, and talked about colleges. We looked at my collection of foreign coins and located each of the counties on a map of the world. Tax Day this year fell on a Tuesday, so we even talked about taxes, what they are and what they pay for. Some things were more successful than others, but we always got through them and had fun. All the time we learned about each other, and I learned a lot about myself.

One last thing I’d like to share. I mentioned that I thought I had to wait until I was retired to do this. Imagine my surprise when two of the other new mentors in my training class were young parents with small children of their own. How could they possibly have the time or energy to do this? They must have already known what I learned this year – being a mentor is energizing, and brings rewards worth far more than the time invested. When people ask me what I’m doing now that I’m retired I always begin the list proudly with Kids Hope and that I’m mentoring a child. I’m confident that my grandchildren will find their way in the world. I’m praying that the time I spend with Robbie will help him do that as well.

~Brad Bright, Kids Hope USA mentor