More mentors needed in Macon to help youth get through the rough spots

Cortes Lester keeps his eyes peeled for his little brothers as he cruises around some of Macon’s roughest neighborhoods at night.

If he spots any of his youngsters hanging out late around Davis Homes, Fort Hill or south Macon, he stops to ask what they’re doing.

“I ask them why they’re out so late and if they have school in the morning,” Lester said of the Bibb County middle school students he mentors. “I try to ride about 10:30 p.m. I think that’s late to be out in middle school. … You got to stay on the kids because they need the guidance.”

Lester, a Northeast High School alumni, graduated last May from Albany State University with a degree in criminal justice. He has been working as a liaison for the Bibb County Mentor’s Project since November.

“I know how it feels to be a kid in the street out here doing bad things,” Lester said. “I once was that kid, so I can easily relate.”

Much of Lester’s focus is on helping young boys who attend Ballard and Weaver middle schools.

Both schools scored an “F” for at least the third consecutive year on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Georgia School Grades Reports, which takes into account student performance and other useful information.

Both middle schools have a substantial amount of out-of-school suspensions. At least a third of students Ballard Hudson students and a quarter of Weaver students were punished with out-of-school suspension last year, according to ‘Miseducation,’ an interactive database based on data from the U.S. Department of Education and published in October by ProPublica.

Lester’s work helps to alleviate a shortage of mentors here.

“I taught guys how to tie ties, how to dress up for an interview, how to firmly shake a hand,” Lester said. “I try to give them life lessons.”

June O’Neal, executive director of the Mentor’s Project of Bibb County, said more than 80 students in the program do not have a mentor, and most of them are young men.

“We’ve never had such a high need for mentors,” O’Neal said, adding that more parents are worrying about their children. “We’ve got young boys out the yazoo, and we don’t have nearly enough men.”

About 95 percent of student proteges live in a single-parent household, and more than 90 percent live below the poverty level.

During January, National Mentor’s Month, O’Neal said she hopes to recruit more mentors and raise awareness about the importance of mentoring.

The program was created in 1990 as a dropout prevention program which placed successful adults with at-risk students. Students are paired with a mentor of the same sex and who has similar interests or lives in the same area of the county.

O’Neal said she recently has taken proteges to Dairy Queen, Subway and Taco Bell for the first time in their lives.

“They just need the opportunity to go to The Grand Opera House, or to a play or for us to take them to the Macon Pops,” O’Neal said. “Just something that broadens their horizon and opens the door of opportunity.”

Mentee to Mentor

Natalie West and her two high school proteges crunched on curly fries from Arby’s after school one recent Thursday.

“I love them,” 26-year-old West said of Janiya Ford and Miracle Gooden. “I look at them like two little sisters.”

The middle child and only daughter of a single mother, West remembered what it was like being a 15-year-old mentee at Central High School.

“Just knowing you’ve got that other person to talk to instead of your parents, it’s just a good feeling,” she said. “I always wanted to be a mentor anyway so I could see the other side (and) so I could feel what my mentors were feeling.”

In between working at Sam’s Club and at an accounting office, West cheers for Gooden at her volleyball games and attends Northeast High School football games to watch Ford play the flute in the marching band.

According to a 2013 study, evidence suggests that developing a close relationship with a mentor led to better academic outcomes for students. The study was called “School-Based Mentoring Programs: Using Volunteers to Improve the Academic Outcomes of Undeserved Students,” by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization.

In contrast, the study found that students who were mentored but did not experience a close relationship showed no improvement in academic outcomes relative to the control group.

After school, Ford and Gooden said they usually watch TV or Netflix.

When the trio of girls gets together, they go out to eat, go to the mall and visit parks. Sometimes they study.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money, you know. It doesn’t have to be hours of your time,” West said. “It’s kind of like filling a void, especially if you don’t have that person or ... that sister or whatever there.”

In addition to just hanging out, and sometimes studying, hard conversations are part of the relationship. Boys, sex, peer pressure and gangs are among topics of interest for proteges in middle and high school.

“I know as a young person you have different questions and you may not want to talk to your parents about them, so it’s always good to have that extra person that you can talk to about it,” West said.

Though she now answers questions, West used to ask them to her mentors, Khia Stephens and Lisa Herring.

Stephens was “like a big sister that I never had,” West said. “She did a lot of things that she really didn’t have to do. She kept me looking sporty.”

Herring, now the Birmingham City Schools superintendent, was more like West’s “cool aunt.”

“She was what I needed because I was getting older,” West said of Herring. “She was always there and ready to push and motivate me to do great. I still talk to her.”

Helping one student can impact an entire family and have a positive effect extending to the student’s friends.

West said she tries to encourage other young people to become mentors and give back to the program.

“A lot of people like to down-talk the youth, you know, (saying) ‘They’re bad,’ or ‘They’re wild,’ ‘They’re killing each other,’ and ‘They’re doing this and … that.’” West said. “But what can you say you’re doing to give back to help to try to make a change?”

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.