Saturday, July 27, 2013

The great race

Thursday evening marked the second running of the Mile Fly Club’s monthly one-mile dash on the Beltline. The brainchild of Sean Pfister and Jeffrey Wisard of IWeLife, the event has a laid-back vibe I’ve seldom seen at organized runs.

This is at least partly by design. What does a race organizer do for fun when he’s not overseeing logistics for an event with 1,000 high-strung participants? Probably something like what we experienced Thursday night.

Sean intentionally keeps the event small—the field is capped at 70 runners, and last week's event had probably half that number. Registration costs just five bucks and pays for computer chip timing on a certified course, with hot dogs, chips, cold drinks, and good company afterwards.

To complete the feel-good story, the registration process offers runners a built-in chance to make a contribution to the organization chosen as the month's charity partner. That's where we come in. YES!Atlanta had the privilege of being this month's partner.

Of course we're appreciative of whatever monetary contribution ends up coming out of the event, but to focus on the money would be to miss so much of the benefit of that night.

During the course of the evening, I met Benjamin of Atlanta Beltline Bicycle (our gracious host for the post-race festivities); a neighboring business owner who saw the hubbub and stopped by; friends and associates of a couple of board members; and runners just there for a good time.

I got to introduce my wife and our little girls around. The three of them met Simeon, my committed partner, for the first time.

I got to run far enough to break a sweat on a pleasant course at a pace that will not cause the current world record holder in the mile to lose any sleep.

But the best part for me was getting to share some leisurely time with a number of our program volunteers, teens, and board members—thirteen of us, by my count.

As we’ve gotten back in the habit of holding monthly Second Saturday sessions, we’ve rediscovered the power of surrounding the teens we serve with a host of adults committed to being positive influencers. A night like this was perfect for candid, unforced conversation among people united by their commitment to the mission of Coaching for Success.

I was so encouraged to see our teens at ease mingling with folks other than their own mentors. And I was pleased (though not surprised) by the enthusiastic support offered to those teens as each ran his or her own race.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Thanks for the amazing intro, Matt! I must say, when I first heard about the Coaching for Success program I was super excited yet a little nervous at the same time. I was nervous that I would not mesh well with my mentee and a host of other things!

As time has progressed, I and my mentee, Darnell, basically have become like brothers. I constantly repeat to Matt how amazing this program is. I am a 24-year-old student at GSU with so much going on. I find so much life and fulfillment with mentoring. I am learning so much about myself in this journey. So much enlightenment has flooded my mind and body. It is truly an amazing experience.

There were many factors that Darnell and I needed to target. At the beginning of each month we both would create a monthly to-do list.  It really helped with organizing and setting goals. The main factor that we targeted on Darnell’s end was his grades. The factor that I targeted on my end was procrastination. In fact, I kept procrastinating about writing this blog—sorry, Matt!

I must say that I am completely impressed with Darnell’s overall grade improvement. He has really dug deep in order to find a way to improve his grades and his overall performance at school. There have been many accomplishments we have achieved as a team and there are many more we will conquer together.

We have done and learned so much from each other within these past six months. We have learned the good and the bad. One thing that Darnell is helping me with is the art of opening up. I can be a bit reserved at times; not a bad thing, but it can have its downfalls. A lot of times I can be stern, too. Darnell’s playfulness and youthfulness often bring out that side of me that sometimes an adult can lose or put away during the process of growing up. Being an adult is hard; it is no walk in the park. Imagine that as a kid I would say “I can’t wait until I become an adult.” WELL! LOL! It is not all bad!

I wanted to wrap up this post by saying that I am ridiculously proud of my committed partner, Darnell. He is really taking in what I am offering him and applying it to his life. I repeat to him how valuable his life is and how many people want to see him succeed. Darnell’s parents, teachers, counselors, siblings, my parents, my friends, and I especially want to see him succeed.

It’s such a huge blessing to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. I thank Dottie and Matt and all the other mentors and mentees for allocating time to benefit one another. Most importantly, I want to thank Darnell for being a blessing to me.

Side note: Darnell SWEARS he is a young boss. What is a young boss compared to a King? HA HA!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

...And then some

I checked in with Kurtis last week to see how things have been recently with him and his committed partner, Darnell. Kurtis had come up in conversation a few days before as I discussed the upcoming academic year with a school administrator. She couldn’t say enough about his interest and involvement in supporting Darnell’s progress last term, and looks forward to working with him again starting in August.

I called Kurtis to pass along a few school-related bits of information and to check in. I appreciate about Kurtis that when we talk, it’s not so I can verify that he’s meeting the baseline requirements for a Coaching for Success mentor. It’s more about catching up on what his “…and then some” looks like at the moment.

Kurtis is a student at Georgia State, and he never seems to lack for things to do. This summer, he’s taking a class and serving at a camp for 5- to 12-year-olds. He’ll be vacationing out of state soon, but he and Darnell have a plan in place for keeping tabs on one another.

Speaking of Darnell, he’s taking a class this summer, too. He and Kurtis have already spoken about what it’ll take to avoid landing in summer school next year. Kurtis is proud of the progress Darnell is making and feels good about his prospects for a successful 10th grade campaign.

What’s next on the agenda for this pair? Darnell is studying up on the driver manual Kurtis brought him and getting ready to apply for a learner permit. And the two will soon be putting their heads together to work on finding a job for Darnell.

This week’s post is a bit shorter than usual. Believe me, that’s not because I couldn’t muster 500 words in Kurtis’s behalf. It’s because I want to leave him a chance to tell you some things in his own words. That’s right, Kurtis asked if he could submit a post as a guest blogger in the near future. Stay tuned….


P.S.—If you’re a Coaching for Success mentor and you’d like to be a guest blogger, contact me. We all stand to benefit as more voices join the conversation.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Take two

In what’s suddenly becoming a trend, I wanted to revisit a recent post again this week. This one refers back to June 1, when we reported on a new match for Je’Mia. That post came out on the day she and her new committed partner, Melanie, had planned their very first one-to-one meeting. And now, as Paul Harvey might say, the rest of the story….

That morning, Melanie found herself behind schedule as she was making final preparations to leave town for a week-long trip. Her attempts to reach Je’Mia via text to let her know they wouldn’t be able to spend very much time together that day didn’t get through, and when Melanie arrived to convey the news in person, Je’Mia was disappointed.

Her mom was frustrated. Je’Mia and her brother, Jerrod, who was also recently paired in a committed partnership, are blessed with a mom who is very much invested in her children’s success and happiness. She is exemplary among our current group of parents and guardians in her desire to be in tune with what’s going on in her kids’ mentoring relationships.

When she hosted Je’Mia’s match meeting a few weeks ago, she was proactive in asking questions of Melanie, and seemed to have a genuine interest in getting to know her. She is protective of her daughter, especially in light of Je’Mia’s experience the first time she was matched with a mentor.

Fast-forward a week. Melanie returned from her trip, and I spoke with her and Je’Mia’s mom as they went about arranging another mentoring activity. Neither was completely satisfied with the way the first attempt had turned out, and both were eager for another go at it.

Melanie and Je’Mia went on an outing that Wednesday—lunch and a movie at Atlantic Station. Melanie called afterward to report that it went well. The two had gotten to talk, and she’d decided to take a piece of advice offered in the New Mentor Workshop by committing to Je’Mia to meet the same day each week for a while. They’ll be an every-Wednesday duo going forward.

So it appears that this match is—once again—off to a good start. Je’Mia and Melanie have gone out a couple of Wednesdays in a row. Melanie sees the great potential in her committed partner and enjoys their time together. Je’Mia’s mom is pleased with the consistent support Melanie’s offering her daughter. And Je’Mia is flashing her trademark smile at the mere mention of her mentor’s name.

Je’Mia and Melanie checked out a collection of bones from long-extinct dinosaurs during their trip to the Fernbank Museum last Wednesday. The commitment to communicating and handling changes of plans that got them past their initial bump in the road will go a long way toward keeping their relationship alive and kicking for a long time to come.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Simeon and me

You might recall Simeon from the May 3 post to this blog. I generally like to keep things moving forward rather than revisiting past stories, but I left some business unfinished back there.

You see, there’s a detail I left out of the narrative of Simeon’s and my trip to the ballpark. It was the question he asked me during the drive home. I had told him we were still looking for a committed partner for him, and he said, “Mr. Matt, why couldn’t you be my mentor?”

I can’t recall what answer I gave him that night. I do recall revisiting his question in my mind every single day until the end of the school year, when Simeon’s mom called me to ask if we could make haste getting him paired up with someone. She had concerns about the influences around him and hoped he could get some additional support during the unstructured months of summer.

I told Simeon’s mom, Claudine, I would make it a priority to find Simeon’s match within a week. Then I looked in the mirror and found him.

The list of objections that had played in my head before that conversation went something like this: “I have two small kids of my own who need a lot of attention,” “My wife works, too, and it’s already tricky to coordinate our schedules,” “I need to maintain a degree of separation from the program to allow me to make objective decisions about it,” and “Am I willing to make a sustained commitment to meet weekly with one particular teen? I have a lot on my plate, and we don’t exactly live next door to one another.”

I’m not proud of my objection list. After all, I’m usually the one who, along with Dottie, affirms prospective mentors in their belief that they can do this, that they’re in for one of life’s truly rewarding experiences if they’ll push past the objections that keep them from getting involved and then make good on their commitment. It’s funny how a small dose of perspective—that there is a real and great need—can melt away the objections.

So how are things with Simeon and me so far? Well, we spent our first two sessions throwing things at each other. It’s not what it sounds like, though—he eked out a win when we tossed a pickup game of cornhole at Atlantic Station, then we played catch at a local ballfield and he showed off his pitching arm.

We’ve also discussed Simeon’s goals, which include attending college (preferably at Clemson or Auburn) on a baseball scholarship. I’ve learned that he loves tofu, wants to study sports medicine, enjoys cooking, and feels self-conscious when he stumbles over his words but is willing to talk anyway. I’ve also seen firsthand what I already knew from interacting with a lot of committed partners: that two guys from different generations, different parts of town, and different backgrounds can have a lot in common, whether it seems that way on the surface or not.

Why couldn’t I be Simeon’s committed partner? No good reason I can think of….

Friday, June 7, 2013


I have a confession to make: Last week I participated in a plot. I was sneaky and conniving, and I said things that, while not altogether untrue, were intentionally misleading. And I’d do it all again.

My co-conspirators included Sonya, a volunteer mentor, and Carmen, a board member, and the victim was Ms. Dottie, longtime program director for YES!Atlanta.

My part was simple, really: Do what it took to make sure Dottie was in our program office from 9:30 until noon Wednesday. Of course, we were coming out of a holiday weekend that Dottie had extended by using a vacation day. And she was to be onsite past typical office hours Wednesday evening to process a teen into the program. She was a good sport, though, and didn’t fuss at me too much for insisting on this particular block of time for a program planning session. Neither did she put up a fight that morning when Carmen showed up and asked her to help unload some program supplies from her car.

As Dottie walked out of the Juvenile Justice Center, Karyn Greer of 11Alive showed up to spring a surprise on her—Sonya had nominated her to be the beneficiary of a Random Act of Kindness. The gesture clearly touched Dottie, and she graciously accepted two $100 gift cards along with an admonition that she was to use them on something for herself.

The tribute was fitting. Beyond fulfilling a wide array of duties, Dottie has been there in person to celebrate high school graduations with Coaching for Success teens, and has driven hours to support some of those same grads four years later as they walked across another stage at the conclusion of their college career. She’s cooked food, organized pitch-ins, and given more rides than you could count into and out of neighborhoods many of her peers wouldn’t set foot in.

The conversation Dottie initiated as we headed back upstairs to our second-floor cubicle after her surprise says it all. She’d been interrupted in the middle of a phone call with a mentor she’s actively working to match with a young man in the program, and she was preoccupied not with how she would use her gift cards, but with getting back down to business.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for Michael,” she confided. “He’s a good kid.” (Dottie’s demonstrating that soft spot by enlisting Michael’s help with odd jobs to give him the opportunity to earn some money.) “I told [the mentor] if he’s not going to commit to doing right by him, I’ll find someone who will.” Noting my ever-so-slightly raised eyebrows, she continued. “I can talk to him a certain way, Matt.”

That she can.

So here’s to a remarkable lady whose systematic acts of caring make her such a deserving recipient of a Random Act of Kindness. Bravo, Ms. Dottie! And thanks for all that you do!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

At last!

The story of Je’Mia’s involvement with Coaching for Success reads like…well…like life just is sometimes.

She started attending the weekly tutoring sessions at the Villages at Carver last fall along with several other young ladies, all of whom knew one another through school or proximity in the neighborhood or blood relation. She’s been a fixture at those weekly sessions ever since, missing only occasionally and never without cause.

Je’Mia has a wonderful personality. She’s bright, enthusiastic, outgoing, and interacts well with peers and adults alike. But for no apparent reason, when it comes to her experience with would-be mentors, she has been snakebit.

Back in the fall, we found a match that looked solid—common interests, right geographic range, compatable personalities—and it got off to a terrific start. Je’Mia’s face is a good barometer for her feelings, and she was all smiles when she was with her mentor or talking about her. Then, a few months in, something happened. I wish I could be more specific about what that “something” was, but it’s so far proven to be one of the unsolved mysteries of this program year.

Suddenly, Je’Mia’s check-ins about her time with her mentor changed. “We went ice skating” and “We’re planning to do such-and-such” turned into “I haven’t been able to reach her” and “When will I get to see my mentor again?”

Since that match terminated prematurely, we’ve made a few cautious attempts to place Je’Mia in another mentoring relationship. There was the month or so Dottie spent trying to coordinate a meeting with another prospect before she, too, fell off the radar. And the more recent case of a potential match we explored who lived just a little too far away.

Through it all, Je’Mia has been remarkably patient. She’s frequently asked “When am I going to get a mentor?” but she’s been unwavering in her commitment to attend program activities.


Melanie’s involvement as a volunteer with YES!Atlanta began with a flourish. Before she even completed the screening and training process required before a mentor is matched with a teen, she was all in. She attended a volunteer support session, met and interacted with some veteran mentors and some fellow newcomers to the program, signed up to help staff our YES!Atlanta booth at a community event, offered to lend a hand with social media….

Melanie attended last month’s Second Saturday session, and she met Je’Mia. Theirs was only a brief first encounter. They spoke a few words to one another during the lunch break. It was enough.

Melanie told me before leaving at the end of the session that she’d really like to be paired with Je’Mia. She’d been struck by that short conversation and by Je’Mia’s sustained engagement with the group in the morning session. Two days later, at the weekly tutoring session, Je’Mia inquired about the possibility of a match with Melanie.

The rest is history. Melanie completed her training two weeks ago, and Je’Mia’s mom hosted the match meeting this Wednesday. Today marks the first one-to-one meeting of this brand-new committed partnership. Je’Mia’s telltale smile is back, and I believe it—and her new mentor—is around to stay.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Yesterday evening at the Georgia Dome, I had the privilege of seeing the lone senior in this year’s Coaching for Success program walk across the stage and claim his high school diploma. LaMontae graduated with honors, and will be attending Georgia State this fall.

I’ve been to a lot of graduation ceremonies over the years. They all seem to have in common that they’re not really occasions for speakers to make life-changing or controversial speeches. Survey the attendees afterward about the content of the valedictorian’s speech and you’d generally get responses ranging from “It was nice” to “Valedic-who?” The next time I see a proud parent or guardian of a soon-to-be grad pull out a pen and paper to take notes about the key points of a commencement address will be the first.

Graduation is, plain and simple, a night for a family to celebrate an important accomplishment by one of its members. The roll call portion of the program is my favorite part—a unique blend of gravitas and gaiety. Whether the assembled cheering section for each grad chooses to express their support with full-throated whoops and hollers or reserved golf claps, there’s something I will always enjoy about the whole experience of being in a crowd like that.

I sat beside Gordon last night. When LaMontae’s name was called, he vocalized an affirmation. I’m quite certain the sound didn’t carry from midway up section 130 behind the end zone to LaMontae’s ears on the 40-yard line, and I joked with Gordon that I had expected him to break out twin air horns and make a big scene. But neither he nor LaMontae’s mom needed air horns to demonstrate their support last night. They were there—just as they’ve been, just as they’ll continue to be.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know LaMontae through his involvement with Coaching for Success. I’ve enjoyed watching as Gordon has stimulated LaMontae’s interest in math and helped him navigate the process of applying for schools and scholarships.  I’ve enjoyed hearing about the pair’s exploits together outside the weekly group tutoring sessions (see the February 15 post in this blog for one of the more memorable ones). And I’m confident this young man has a bright future ahead of him.

We caught up with LaMontae after the ceremony and congratulated him on his achievement. He seemed ready to get out of cap and gown and move on to a small family celebration at his favorite restaurant, P.F. Chang. I said good-bye and watched as LaMontae and his party of supporters—his girlfriend, his brother, his mom, and Gordon—walked off together into the night.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Second Saturday

Last Saturday we re-instituted a YES!Atlanta tradition. For the first time in more than a year, we invited all Coaching for Success participants together for a group session. Mary Mitchell, one of YES!Atlanta’s co-founders and a recent addition to the board of directors, facilitated the session.

Mary insisted on students’ participation and engagement from the outset. Once everyone had stood in front of the group and announced their name, grade, and school, she told the teens the first order of business would be to read through and discuss a set of five basic ground rules for Second Saturday sessions.

Mary made it clear that she’d be seeking a volunteer to read each of the rules, and, anticipating that most of the teens would wait for someone else to step forward, promised the first volunteer the chance to read the shortest rule.

A quiet seventh-grader among a mostly high school-aged group, Mike would have topped my board as the odds-on favorite to resist participating the longest. But he quickly reminded me that I am a nonprofit executive, not a handicapper. Buoyed by Mary’s promise that the early bird would get off relatively easy, he practically jumped out of his seat to read rule 1: Be on time.

This rule was a good entry point for the morning’s conversation about the importance of keeping commitments. We had announced a start time of 10 a.m., but the last of the participants didn’t arrive until almost 10:30.

Mary had confided in me beforehand that the students would get a free pass—this time—on rule 1. Good thing. The way a few of our teens came in made me wonder how they make it to school early in the morning five days a week. My first glance at a particularly bleary-eyed girl reminded me of a teen truism once set out for me by a program participant: “There’s no such thing as a Saturday morning.”

It was slow going at first, as the rules of engagement were set and re-set. Mary had to remind students at nearly every exchange that she expected them to raise their hand to be acknowledged, stand while speaking, and acknowledge others’ contributions.

If you’ve spent much time with teens, you can probably imagine the non-verbal cues they were giving out to display their resistance to the format—loud sighs, rolling eyes, contorted posture, and a pace of movement more befitting residents at a senior center than students in senior high school.

The change started taking root maybe ten minutes into the session. One by one, as they reached the conclusion that Mary was going to stick to her guns, the teens began complying with the ground rules and genuinely engaging in the conversation. What started as one or two outliers quickly developed into a majority, and voil√†—the beginnings of a mutually supportive peer group.

It’s a delicate seedling at this point, but I expect it’ll flourish with the right tending. That’s what Second Saturdays are for.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ice cream social

This past Monday, we offered the students at our newest tutoring site a treat to acknowledge them for their effort and consistent attendance this semester: an ice cream social. Students got to dress up their sundaes with a variety of toppings—cookies, candy bars, chopped nuts, whipped cream, chocolate sauce…even a cherry on top.

That’s how the evening ended, but it took some work to get there.

Larry is the Resident Services Director for the Villages at Carver community and the initiator of our sundae-making party. He’s been a great ally as we’ve gotten this new program site up and running in the past year. Recently, Larry has been a regular fixture at Monday night tutoring sessions. He’s built a rapport with the teens using his unique way of cutting up with them even while laying down the law.

A few weeks back, Larry and one of the young men at this site exchanged a few words about the importance of respect and making the most of opportunities. Things didn’t get overly heated between the two, but as an offshoot of that conversation, the young man (an every-week regular since January) didn’t attend the following Monday.

This week, he returned. Larry and I took him aside for a quick conversation in a side room. At first, his eyes were down and his guard up. He had muttered a few choice words on his way out the door last time, and this became the first topic of discussion. It took him a minute and a little bit of coaching to engage, but once he did, things started to take a turn for the better.

Larry made a few points about this being a critical moment to really take in some of life’s lessons about how to successfully interact with others. His tone was firm and his words direct, but they were followed by a sincere assurance that he cared for this young man and wanted him to be here.

I reminded the young man of a conversation we had in his home last December that concluded with my inviting him to join Coaching for Success, not because he was a bad guy or because he really needed someone to fix him and his
problems, but because he has such potential to make it in life.

We talked for a few minutes more, and once everything was “straight,” we rejoined the group and finished out a productive tutoring session.

Then came the ice cream social. It was a real pleasure to get to sit around the table with this group of young people, at ease and enjoying themselves. We’ve gotten to know one another pretty well since last fall, but there was something nice about being able to set the books aside and just share a treat.

I suppose that’s how it is sometimes—you come for tutoring (and maybe even a challenging conversation) and you get ice cream. It takes hard work and commitment to get to the payoff, but when you do, how sweet it is!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Take me out to the ballgame

I recently had an unexpected bonding opportunity with one of the young men in the Coaching for Success program. My chance came courtesy of Dan, a friend who offered up some Braves tickets he had gotten from work and was unable to use.

With a pair of the tickets I took Simeon, a ninth-grader who is currently waiting on a mentoring match, to the ballpark. Simeon plays catcher on his high school baseball team and is an avid student of the game. This was not his first trip to Turner Field, but he was still wide-eyed at the experience.  With his mother’s blessing, he insisted on staying to the very end, when I snapped the attached photo of him.

Throughout the evening, Simeon was strikingly gracious. I was detained at a meeting and didn’t get to pick him up until the game was already a few innings old. He waved off my apologies, saying he was just happy for the chance to go.

It’s been a little while since I last visited a Major League ballpark, and as we passed booth after booth staffed by concessionaires and souvenir vendors on the way to our seats, I found myself wondering how my two young daughters would have reacted had they been there. Given half a chance, I suspect they would have overloaded with cotton candy, popcorn, foam tomahawks, and the like before ever laying eyes on the diamond. Not Simeon, though. He was there to see a game, and he quietly and confidently took the lead navigating to our section.

Like Simeon, I love a good ballgame. For my money, America’s pastime is the best among the major sports as a backdrop for meandering but meaningful conversation.  As the game moved along steadily, we talked our way easily through a number of topics—cherished memories at the ballpark, favorite players, the relative strengths of each team’s lineup, how to hit an off-speed pitch, the duties of a catcher who’s not starting, the progress Simeon’s making toward pulling his grades up, his knack for talking his way out of trouble, plans for the summer, and so on.

All in all, it was a wonderful night. The weather was perfect, the good guys won 3-2, and, with a little coaching from Simeon, I got the chance to perfect my tomahawk chop. Most importantly, a young man got a tangible reinforcement of a message we consistently work to get across—that he’s valuable, and there are people in his life who want the best for him.

I told Dan afterwards how much I appreciated his sharing those tickets. To him it was a simple and natural gesture, but for Simeon—and for me, too—it really meant a lot. Dan has a lot of responsibilities at work and at home. He may not have an hour every week to devote to mentoring a young person, but he made a valuable contribution nonetheless.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Broken brackets and healed relationships

Early last week, I joined several million of my closest friends in the annual ritual of filling out an NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket. Coming out of an upset-filled first weekend, I was riding high. Dumb luck had smiled on me, and I found myself near the top of the heap. I was ranked in the 97th percentile among participants in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.

Then, last night, the tournament’s second weekend got underway. I missed on three of my four picks and saw my projected national champion make an early exit from the field. My overall ranking hasn’t plummeted just yet, but any dreams I might have had of fighting off throngs of reporters crowding around my door asking what’s behind my power of prognostication and seeking my opinions about capital markets and corn futures have gone up in smoke.

As is the case with my tournament bracket, a lot can change from one week to the next in a mentoring match. Ever have a tiff with a good friend and see your perception of that person take a big-time turn for the worse? Even long-standing friendships between mature individuals can sour at what might seem to an objective observer like a small-potatoes issue.

Imagine how much greater is the possibility of something going badly wrong when the parties involved are just getting to know one another—and are still in the process of constructing a bridge to span some major differences in culture, life circumstance, and so on.

All this speaks to the necessity of regular monitoring and contact with the members of our committed partnerships. This is definitely not a case where no news is good news. Just as my Tournament Challenge entry didn’t reach out to inform me that my bracket just drove off a cliff, it’s not realistic to expect that a teen is going to call me to say he’s thoroughly peeved with his mentor. Without regular check-ins initiated by an impartial and supportive staff member, he’d be more likely to simmer silently and let the relationship slowly fail.

I hope you’ve had the experience of recovering a relationship from what feels, at least in the moment, like a major disagreement or misunderstanding. And I hope many of our Coaching for Success program participants get to experience this during the course of their time with YES!Atlanta. Learning to get past hard feelings to preserve something of great value is both empowering and rewarding.

My bracket is a lost cause. Their relationships are anything but.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Have you ever finished reading a novel or watching a movie and found yourself thoroughly satisfied with the ending and marveling at how the writer got you there?

My all-time favorite film is Shawshank Redemption, which I believe accomplishes the rare feat of being even better than the short story it’s based on. I love the way director Frank Darabont builds the story of Andy’s friendship with Red, masterfully separates them out from one another, and concludes with their reunion on the beaches of Zihuatanejo.

I recently had a series of encounters with the members of one of our committed partnerships that, in a small way, echoed Shawshank for me.

We paired Asia and Latorsha last fall. Since that time I’ve had a couple of firsthand opportunities to observe them spending time together and have gotten frequent reports about the status of their match, most often from Asia. The theme of those reports has been unwavering, even as the circumstances vary—Asia has always reported an extremely high degree of satisfaction with the relationship.

Now, this fact by itself wouldn’t be all that remarkable. Some young people (and, for that matter, some adults) display the tendency to tell me what they think I want to hear. Not so Asia. If there’s one teen in the Coaching for Success program right now who I can count on to say what’s on her mind—good, bad, or ugly—it’s Asia.

She’s not a bit shy about telling me (or really anyone who cares to hear) if she doesn’t like someone, and she’s shown no inclination to withhold information when she’s gotten into it with peers at school.

It seemed that this match was sailing along smoothly. So I was a bit taken aback on the day we’d scheduled their four-month checkup to get word that Asia’s mom had called, frustrated, and asked to cancel the meeting because she didn’t know where her daughter was and couldn’t get in touch with her. Then Latorsha texted saying she couldn’t reach Asia and, since she had no-showed for their last scheduled meeting, didn’t want to drive into town without some confirmation that the experience wouldn’t be repeated. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Sounds like we’ll have some things to talk about if we can pull this meeting off tonight.”

The meeting did come together that evening, but it required none of the de-tangling of raw feelings I’d anticipated. All three ladies were present and in high spirits. They hadn’t buried their feelings, but had simply expressed them, addressed them, and moved on. Asia and Latorsha talked at length about the importance of communication in their relationship. Of course they share favorite activities (dining out around town tops the list), but clearly the most important thing they do is talk—often, and about pretty much anything.

Every relationship hits some bumps in the road. Despite our best intentions, cell phone batteries die, car tires go flat, family emergencies come up, misunderstandings happen. A true friendship, though, can endure whatever circumstances may work against it. Just ask Andy and Red—or Asia and Latorsha.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Survey says…?

[Spoiler Alert: we don’t yet have the data from the surveys referenced in this post’s title, so Family Feud devotees expecting to instantly hear a “ding!” and see an answer pop up are likely to be disappointed.]

The honeymoon is officially over for the first bunch of mentoring matches we made last fall. That’s no cause for alarm, though—these matches are only a few months old, but they’re built to last.

We celebrate a match’s successful completion of their first four months by bringing both committed partners together for a face-to-face meeting with a member of the program staff. We circle up and give everyone a chance to share from their experience. We verify that everyone’s contact info is up-to-date, make sure we have a workable list of goals on paper, and ask both partners to complete a survey.

I had the pleasure some years ago of making the acquaintance of John Harris, a highly regarded expert in mentoring evaluation. John is the lead author of a couple of surveys that are terrific diagnostic tools for programs interested in producing and documenting high quality matches.

John is the person who first introduced me to the phenomenon of the mentoring match honeymoon. It makes sense, really. Ask the sorts of questions included in the surveys during the “getting-to-know-you” phase of a relationship, and you’re likely to get results that are somewhat skewed, especially from youths. Depending on a young person’s age and temperament, those first few weeks and months might be spent toward either extreme of what we might call the “relationship reality” scale.

At one end of this scale is the “Ohmygosh this is SO amazing! It’s outside the realm of possibility that my mentor could ever do anything wrong” bunch. At the other end is the “Are you kidding me? We’re just gonna sit here and talk for an hour?!? This is NOT what I signed up for” crowd. Once the match matures a bit and its members build some common experience, the responses tend to settle in somewhere between the extremes.

That’s what I’ve observed while conducting several of these four month checkups recently. The blindfolds and rose-colored glasses are off, and I’m pleased to find a lot of teens and adults willing and able to give meaningful (and generally good) assessments of where things stand. They laugh together as they recall funny incidents, complete each other’s sentences, embarrass one another with the insider information they’ve learned. No, they’re not newlyweds, but they are committed partners.

Well, as promised at the outset, I don’t have hard match relationship quality data for you right now. It’s in the realm of possibility that the surveys will uncover a different story than the one the mentors and teens have verbalized to us. We might get a smattering of “Where did that come from?!?” answers √† la Family Feud, but I certainly don’t expect we’ll learn that the matches we think are successful are actually disasters. Stay tuned….

Friday, February 22, 2013

Tall tales

Derriontae (a.k.a. “Jim Bob”) is the longest-tenured teen currently in the Coaching for Success program. He’s been matched in a committed partnership with Kim since 2010.

Near the end of last Tuesday’s tutoring session, he and I got a chance to shoot the breeze for a little while. I think Jim Bob was born with the used-car-salesman gene—you know, the innate ability to sell just about anything to just about anyone. I suspect that the right motivation could prompt most anyone to muster a sales pitch and the persistence to stay after someone until he or she has gotten the desired answer. But Jim Bob has that elusive quality that enables him to do so in a thoroughly likeable way. He can pester you and you’ll want to thank him for it.

In the span of about 15 minutes, he told me that a buddy of his—a fellow teenager, from the sound of it—had recently climbed Mt. Everest, and that his great-grandfather had been a good friend of Adolf Hitler. He was utterly unfazed by my lighthearted attempts at fact-checking his claims. (Jim Bob is an African-American. Was it likely his forebear would have been a chum of one of history’s most notorious proponents of “racial purity”? Well, to hear Jim Bob tell it, his great-granddad was a white German. And that mountain-climbing friend? He’s apparently rich, which explains why the challenges of even getting to the base of Everest were no big deal.)

When he perceived my continued incredulity at his tall tales, Jim Bob pulled out all the stops: “No, I mean for real for real,” he told me. I didn’t have an answer for the squaring of his claims, so we let them go.

I wish some of the other things Jim Bob and those close to him have shared with me were tall tales. Like the one about his getting jumped by five other boys for committing the transgression of being in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time—nevermind that he was there to visit his grandmother. Or the ones about broad-daylight street corner transactions just a block or two from his home and fistfights over careless missteps on new shoes.

Jim Bob’s is not a simple story.

I asked him whether he thought he could talk his way out of just about anything. He told me that he knows he can’t. Then he gave some supporting evidence. He said “Miss Kim doesn’t let me get away with that kind of stuff.” Then, as he glanced around the room, he remarked at the fact that Dottie and Clara and Gordon don’t, either. “And yet you’re here almost every week,” I said. “Why is that?” It’s a question Dottie’s asked him before. The answer? “I keep coming because I love y’all.”

Not a simple story, but a compelling one. The narrative of Jim Bob’s life is still being written. I can’t tell you how it ends, but I like the way it’s trending.

Friday, February 15, 2013


I’ll never forget my first car—a light blue 1980 four-door Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. It was a battle-tested veteran by the time I inherited it. Following a low-speed run-in with a utility pole early in its life, it forever thereafter sported a not-so-subtle dent extending from the left-front fender almost to the trailing edge of the driver’s door.

That car gave me some of the best leg workouts of my life, as it lacked power brakes and thus couldn’t be stopped without an enthusiastic stomp to the floor. And boy, did it ever have a touchy accelerator! Mash the pedal two-thirds of the way down and…nothing. Take it just past that point with anything less than a surgeon’s finesse, and I’d elicit disapproving stares and head shakes from adults convinced I was just another teenaged boy in a beater driving like I was going out for the Indy 500. Maybe they weren’t too far off base….

LaMontae, the lone senior among our current group of teens, recently told me he got his first car—a Cadillac born in the same decade as he was. LaMontae’s a pretty low-key guy, so he doesn’t wear the pride of ownership on his sleeve the way a lot of teenaged boys do. But you can see it if you look. And I suspect it’ll be a lot more noticeable once he gets his ride fixed up the way he wants.

LaMontae and his mentor, Gordon, went to the local Pull-A-Part recently, searching for a few replacement odds and ends. They drove Gordon’s car, as LaMontae’s is in need of a new battery. The shopping list that day included a front seat (to eliminate the need for an ingenious exercise ball-prop that keeps the seat from permanently reclining) and a gas cap. They priced the seat and bought the cap.

Once they got to LaMontae’s home and attached the new part, they jumped his car. It came to life and they were able to give it a once-over. The power trunk release worked, so they popped the lid and looked inside—only to discover the hideout of the car’s original gas cap!

When Gordon shared the story of the part-shopping trip, he prefaced it by saying he guessed he and LaMontae hadn’t accomplished much that day. I beg to differ. Inefficient efforts to fix up imperfect cars, and the chance to share a laugh over “Remember the time we…?” stories down the road are the stuff relationships are made of.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Off and running

The last few weeks at YES!Atlanta have seen a flurry of new mentoring matches. As we’ve screened and trained a new crop of mentors, we’ve moved them quickly into committed partnerships with teens, many of whom have been waiting a month or more for the right match to come along.

Our newest pairing is Malik and Joe.

Malik is a relative newcomer, both to Coaching for Success and to the state of Georgia. His mom brought him here from New York. Malik is in the 9th grade and plays on the varsity football team at school. He’s as tall as me, solidly built, and, like most teenage boys I’ve met, not too inclined to talk your ear off—at least not until he gets to know you.

I had my first face-to-face meeting with Joe in January, when he rolled up to the New Mentor Workshop on his motorcycle. Joe exudes cheery confidence. He has a teenage son himself, and seems perfectly seasoned for the work he’s signed on for.

We feel pretty confident Malik and Joe will make a good match. Their Activities & Interests Sheets—tools we use to collect information about what teens and volunteers like to do or are curious about—showed a dozen interests in common. But it doesn’t stop there. As they spent time getting to know one another at their match meeting Tuesday night, one commonality after another surfaced. Each an only child. Both transplants (Joe lived in Jersey). Malik has family in the area where Joe lives….

While Malik and Joe were having their first one-to-one conversation, I stepped outside with Malik’s mom. She expressed her appreciation and her impression that this was going to work out well. She also shared an interesting bit of information about her son. She told me he had taken the time to check out YES!Atlanta for himself online. And that he read this blog and wondered whether maybe someday his story would be featured.

It’s not often I hear that one of our teens reads these blog posts. Parents? Yes. Volunteers? Sure. Friends and supporters of YES!Atlanta? I hope so. But teens? That’s a different story.

So, Malik, this one’s for you—this blog post, but also this opportunity in the form of a mentoring relationship. I haven’t known you long enough to say with certainty, but based on what I’ve heard of your impressive football instincts, I think they can guide you in this situation. It’s just like when you meet the opposing team’s running back in the hole: Grab on tight and don’t let go.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Constant contact

When we make a new match, we’re not surprised if there are a few bumps in the road early on. For many teenagers (and, let’s face it, for some adults), inviting a complete stranger into their life and committing to work toward a close relationship with him or her is kind of unsettling.

Before they’re eligible to be matched with a youth, our volunteers have to complete the New Mentor Workshop. This training gets them to start thinking through ways to deal with the initial resistance they might encounter from their committed partner. Lack of initiative in building the relationship is age-appropriate behavior for a teen, we tell them. You’ll likely have to do most of the heavy lifting at first, we tell them. Be patient, don’t get discouraged if it takes him or her a while to open up, we tell them. Then, once in a while, we pair an adult with a teen like Keyera, and they wonder what on earth we’ve been talking about.

We matched Keyera with Victoria last fall. Their early reports were brimming with enthusiasm about what a great fit they were for each other. We often find that, during a committed partnership’s “honeymoon”—the first month in particular—its members have either a very high opinion of their match or a very low opinion of it. It can take a while for things to even out. Enough time has passed now that the “honeymoon” is over for this match. Victoria and Keyera continue to give us one glowing report after another.

In the four months that they’ve been paired, our regular “How are things going in your committed partnership?” check-ins have occasionally revealed that the two haven’t gotten together in more than a week. In general, such news prompts us to follow up more regularly with a match to ensure that this week’s exception doesn’t turn into next month’s new norm. But Keyera and Victoria have something going for them that helps them bridge any longer-than-usual gaps between their face-to-face meetings: “We talk pretty much every day—on the phone, Facebook, or texting.”

There’s just no substitute for that kind of consistency. What started for both as a commitment to abide by the requirements of the program has quickly turned into something they can’t imagine not doing. “We’ve gotten so close, it’s hard to go too long without seeing her,” Victoria says. “I love my mentor,” Keyera tells me. “She’s like the big sister I’ve always wanted.”

Keyera is the big sister in her household, and it shows in the way she carries herself among her peers. For better or worse, she’s a natural leader—an influencer whose words and actions carry a lot of weight. So what happens when such a leader is surrounded with positive, caring, consistent influences? Great things.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Community gardening

Last weekend, a group of our teens and adult volunteers made the most of a beautiful sunny Saturday by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. Under the watchful eyes of a few master gardeners and urban farmers, they put in three hours of work in the community garden at the Villages at Carver, pulling weeds and prepping the soil for planting in a month or two.

The project was timed to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service and represented a first for the current crop of Coaching for Success participants. We’ve had periodic group events dating back to last fall, but this was the first time the teens have come together to volunteer in the community. I’m certain it won’t be the last.

When we first started trying to drum up interest in a volunteer project among our teens, I was pleased to find a high percentage who expressed a willingness to serve. I asked each whether there were any causes—hunger, homelessness, animal welfare, the environment, etc.—that were especially important to her or him. Almost to a person, the response sounded something like this: “Um…well…not really.” The experience left me with the impression that these young people have seldom if ever been asked that question before.

Since our teens didn’t request any particular type of service, we decided on the community gardening project—a tailor-made, ready-to-go opportunity supporting one of our program partners.

 The morning of the project, I overheard a few terrified exclamations as brand-new gardeners unearthed worms and other residents of the soil. And I witnessed a couple of instances of teens working through the new experience by retreating to the familiar territory of cutting up and giving each other a hard time. But I also saw teens enthusiastically applying the facilitators’ instructions and beginning to take pride in their newly acquired skills.

My informal polling of the students that day revealed a subset of the group that is interested in working in the garden on an ongoing basis. (I think the discovery of a few onions left over from the last planting helped—several of the teens couldn’t get over how fresh they smelled.) I’m not sure how this will look going forward, but our hosts offered to let us use one of the garden plots and we’re working on setting up a rotation of committed partnerships to try their hand at raising vegetables this summer.

For some of the teens, this was likely their first and last experience with community gardening. We’ll keep working with these to try and uncover the causes that spark their passion to make a difference. For a few, though, Saturday’s service ignited that spark. It’s early in the season, but I know some seeds were planted in the garden last weekend. Let’s see how they grow.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Early last fall, Marquis came to us at his mother’s insistance. He had been withdrawn from public school last year due to his penchant for fighting, and was still showing a troubling tendency to throw punches—at walls or at people—to vent.

While debriefing his intake interview, I learned that he aspires to be a professional mixed martial artist. His responses to some of the questions seemed on the surface to second his mom’s assessment that he has “anger issues.” But the interview also revealed a young man who is quiet, thoughtful, and respectful.

Later that month, we matched Marquis with Jeremy, a mentor who might also be described as quiet, thoughtful, and respectful.

Jeremy brought Marquis to one of our group events in November, a fall festival in a community where we work. I used their attendance as an opportunity to catch up on how their match was going. First I spoke with Jeremy for a little while as Marquis stood on the curb, hands in pockets, staring off into the distance.

When I moved on from Jeremy to talk with Marquis, he gave me his take—but he made me work for it. It was a few minutes into our conversation when I finally asked a question that elicited more than a one- or two-word answer: “What’s your favorite thing you’ve done with Jeremy so far?” His response came without so much as a moment’s hesitation: “We went to an MMA event together.”

For the uninitiated, MMA stands for mixed martial arts, which Wikipedia describes as “a full contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, from a variety of other combat sports.”

At their initial training, we give mentors a list of 101 free or low-cost activities they can do with a young person. It’s not intended as a comprehensive list, but as a tool for mentors wondering how to spend time with a teen they’ve just met. Nowhere on that list is “attend a fight.” I’m so glad Jeremy didn’t stick to the script.

Fighting can get a young man suspended and eventually expelled from school. Or, constrained and focused in the right direction, it can instill in him the discipline and resiliency he’ll need to push back at the influences that will try to steal his potential.

I haven’t been there for most of the time Jeremy has spent with Marquis, but I can bet he hasn’t used that time to deliver lectures about how fighting is bad, how Marquis would be better off dropping this dream of becoming a pro fighter and just “fit the mold.”

That approach usually has the effect of shutting a teen down, causing an already-withdrawn young man to withdraw further. That’s not what I oberved in my talk with Marquis that November afternoon. It took the right conversation thread to get there, but what surfaced was a groundswell of appreciation that he has a mentor who “gets him.”

Marquis isn’t the only one satisfied with his match. When I spoke with his mom around Christmas, she gushed about the improvements she’s seen in his behavior and how happy she is that he spends time with Jeremy.

Will you see Marquis on pay-per-view in a few years, competing for an Ultimate Fighting Championship title? I can’t say. I will say, though, that this young man has much more than a puncher’s chance at making it in life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dream big

We spend about an hour interviewing every teen who has expressed an interest in joining Coaching for Success before accepting her or him into the program. A few days after Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing a quiet and thoughtful young lady named Yasmine.

Midway through the interview, we generally ask a series of questions pertaining to goals. When I asked Yasmine whether she has set any goals for herself, she gave me three:
1. Finish high school
2. Go to college
3. Become an elementary school teacher

As a follow-up, I asked her to choose one of those goals and talk about how she is working toward accomplishing it and why it’s important to her. She chose to talk about her first goal.

She had already given me a good deal of the “how” in answering some of the earlier interview questions. She’s not at the same high school as most of the crowd she used to get in trouble with in middle school, and she’s decided it’s more important to line herself up to succeed as a student than to get connected with a big group of new friends. She’s become the type of student who gets her work done whether her teachers are looking over her shoulder or not.

As for the “why,” her mom dropped out of high school when Yasmine was born. And her grandmother dropped out of high school when her mother was born. “I want to be the first girl in my family to finish high school,” she said.

I don’t yet know Yasmine well, but this small piece of her story inspires and challenges me.

The New Year affords us an opportunity to make resolutions and set goals about how we’d like to do things differently. In an effort to make these goals more “attainable,” how often have I settled for some trifling shift in behavior? (Exercise more, eat healthier, take up a new pastime, etc.)

In contrast, how often have I put forth a bold statement that I’m going to do something unprecedented? Making a break from how things have been done for generations in one’s family is no small feat. Yasmine’s is a remarkable goal—one that deserves support and regular reinforcement. I’m glad this soft-spoken young lady has what it takes to dream big.

Friday, January 4, 2013

No means...Yes!

One of the things that’s vitally important to the long-term success of our mentoring matches is that all parties involved—the adult volunteer, the youth, and the parent or guardian—have a willingness to commit to the relationship. This seems obvious enough, but for an organization with a longstanding partnership with the Juvenile Court, the question of consent versus constraint isn’t always so easy to sort out.

This fall, I was called into an intake interview with a young man who had been referred to us. His interviewer told me that DeVante had answered the very first question of the screening—“Do you want a mentor?—with an emphatic “No.” The interviewer had gone ahead with the rest of the intake before revisiting this most vital of all the questions we ask. Again, his answer was a firm “No.”

There’s a fine line between selling a young person on the many benefits of a mentoring relationship and backing him into a corner, pushing for a commitment hard enough that he’ll say whatever he feels he needs to say—whether he means it or not—to make the conversation end. I don’t like to toe that line.

I did give it one more shot, though, making sure he understood that a mentor is not a de facto probation officer, a parent, or someone else to get on his case and tell him what to do, but rather a role model, a listening ear, a friend.

He was resolute in his insistence that he didn’t want a mentor. I told him he was welcome to come to the weekly tutoring sessions anyway, and that I’d occasionally revisit this question with him. He agreed to this arrangement.

I was surprised to learn a few Tuesdays later that our Program Director had lined DeVante up for a match meeting with Kevin, one of our veteran mentors. Concerned that perhaps something had been lost in translation, I took DeVante aside and reminded him of our conversation a few weeks before. I assured him I had meant it when I promised we wouldn’t try to force him into a match.

I asked the question again: “Do you want a mentor?” Not all that much time had passed, but something had clearly changed for this young man. His determined “No” had turned into “It’s okay. I’ll give it a try.” And try he has.

Now a couple of months into his match, DeVante’s is one of the most familiar faces at the weekly tutoring sessions. Are he and his mentor consistently getting time together? In the case of some matches, I have to take the mentor’s and the teen’s word for it that they’re meeting regularly. In DeVante and Kevin’s case, though, all I have to do is show up on Tuesdays. They’re both almost invariably there, talking and laughing, sitting side by side working through an out-of-class reading assignment, happy to be together.

Willingness can take a person a long way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A new thing

Happy New Year, and welcome to the brand-new blog home of YES!Atlanta. We've been around since 1988, but are new to the blogosphere. We already have a you can find out lots of information about the work we're doing in the Atlanta metro area. Please also follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

The goals of this space are a bit different from our other online homes. Here, you'll find regular reports from the front lines. As we move through 2013, I'll be collecting and posting first-hand accounts from our mentors and tutors, the dedicated volunteers who are the backbone of what we do.

Theirs are the compelling stories of hard-earned connections with teens who have been quiet, reserved, shut down; of breakthroughs and "ah-ha!" moments when they've seen young people surge ahead of the curve at school because of the hard work they've put in studying together; of the surprising twists and turns a mentoring relationship can take, and the satisfaction of seeing a young person take a firm hold on one of life's lessons.

Here are a few basic ground rules and protocols we'll observe:

  • We want to share compelling stories, but not at the expense of a young person's or a volunteer's desire for privacy or anonymity. We'll generally use first names only, and might at times use aliases. The names may be invented, but the stories never will be.
  • We'll keep posts to 500 or fewer words. War and Peace is a great book, but you probably didn't come here to read it.
  • Watch for a new post each week, usually on Friday.

That's it. New year, new blog. I hope you'll stop back by later this week when the narrative begins in earnest....