Across town, Swearer program mentors young

Monday, October 6, 2008

The gym at the John Hope Settlement House is full of kids sitting quietly on wooden bleachers. But when Peter Boyer ’09 and Riaz Gillani ’09 – coordinators of the John Hope Mentoring Program – walked through the double doors along with the rest of the mentors, kids jumped from their seats, hugging each of their mentors enthusiastically.

It was a typical Friday afternoon for the mentors, who had boarded a bus at Kennedy Plaza downtown for the two-mile trip to the Settlement House, a community organization dedicated to subsidized children’s services and after-school programs. Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rhode Island in the inner-city neighborhood of Providence’s West End, the Settlement House provides a stark contrast to College Hill.

The mentoring program, which Boyer called a “phenomenal way” to escape college life, provides a direct relationship with the city’s most disadvantaged children through these weekly one-on-one sessions.

The kids in the neighborhood — an area with one of the highest levels of children in poverty in the country — “are lacking some things that we have taken advantage of … like meaningful mentors,” said Gillani, who began volunteering with the program as a first-year. “Hopefully, we can be that extra older role model.”

The close relationships forged through the program are apparent as the mentees greet their mentors, many of whom have had the same mentee since they began the program.

Boyer said that he and his mentee, Ethan, usually play sports like soccer or basketball. Nearby, Nabeel Gillani ’12 and his mentee take a seat together on the bleachers to catch up on the week’s events, while Jaleesa Jones ’11 tosses around a green handball with some girls.

“You don’t know it, but they actually wait for you to come,” said Emily Eng ’09, who began mentoring during the spring of her freshman year.

The kids who don’t have mentors run around the gym, jump rope or sit quietly on the bleachers doing homework while they wait for their parents to pick them up after work.

“I want to be in college!” announced Mariely, a fifth-grader, when she realized the mentors were in the gym, adding that she had heard college students didn’t have to go to class if they didn’t feel like it.

Though she said she didn’t like spelling the long words on her spelling tests, she soon admitted, “Sometimes, I’d rather be in school than at my house, especially when it rains.”

“You kind of get caught up with your day-to-day life,” Riaz Gillani said. He added that the mutual exchange with the kids allows each mentor to see another side of the Providence community first-hand.

Especially rewarding, he added, was talking to his mentee every week and realizing “there’s actually someone listening.”

“It’s a breath of fresh air to get off the hill,” said Josh Drago ’09, another mentor in the program, adding that many of the programs run at Brown are “really detached from the community.”

But the leaders of the program, which is currently run through the Swearer Center for Public Service and sustained by the coordinators, are working on revamping the recruitment effort. Despite interest – the program currently has about 15 members – the senior mentors all shared the desire to make the program more cohesive and increase its visibility on campus.

On the ride back to campus, Gillani, a biomedical engineering concentrator, said he hoped to continue working with kids in the long run, though he plans on pursuing a career in medicine.

“In the long term, I’ve become more humanitarian in my outlook,” he said. “Definitely reach out. You’ll be glad you did.”

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