A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Advancing Equality: Love, acceptance, empathy for high-risk youth requires respect for diversity

By William Cole
Mentoring Plus

Part of a series by NKY’s nonprofits who stand together against racism and any acts that dehumanize people.

It was already late at night on the last Saturday in May when Robin Anderson, the Mentoring Plus (M+) program director, started receiving calls and texts. Isaiah, the young man on the other line, had decided to march in the protests in Cincinnati. He’d been a student at M+ for more than three years and had a strong, trusting relationship with the staff. He knew he could count on Robin for guidance and instruction as this eventful night was drawing to a close.

Isaiah is just 17 years old. He’s black, homosexual, and opinionated. The protests that swept across the country were tense and occasionally violent and were happening precisely because people like Isaiah were tired of being trampled on. Watching the fallout in the wake of George Floyd’s murder sparked Isaiah’s imagination, and inspired him to join the movement here in town. But that night, as curfews were being enforced and the march was winding down, Isaiah, a Newport resident, found himself stuck in Cincinnati and unable to get home. He was on foot, making his way across the Taylor-Southgate Bridge when he was stopped by police. Newport’s curfew was in effect and it seemed as if the city was on lockdown as local officials worked to ensure that any violence stayed North of the Ohio River. Isaiah wasn’t sure what to do. So he relied on the person who had always been there to help him. With Robin’s help, he made it home safely.

It’s been a unique and challenging year for so many of us. For Isaiah and others like him — racial minorities, marginalized groups, those in the LGBT community, and those who are financially disadvantaged — the pandemic added a new layer of challenges to their difficult position. At the time of the protests, when the need for M+ services was at its peak, the organization was forced to close its nightly program in response to COVID-19. The support and structure that M+ offers was tampered, just when our youth and families needed it most. But even when M+ couldn’t be there on a regularly scheduled program night, Isaiah knew Robin would be there when he needed her. Those relationships are at the center of everything we do at M+.

Located on York St. in the heart of Newport, Mentoring Plus offers a site-based program with one-to-one mentorship for the area’s most high-risk youth and their families. The program pairs 13-18-year-olds with a mentor/life coach, who meet on a weekly basis for one year. While the life coach stands as a reliable friend and confidant, the organization’s full-time case managers provide wrap-around services to bring stability to every aspect of the youth’s life. The M+ curriculum covers topics like anger management, drug & alcohol abuse, relationship development, self-discovery, and more. These topics are covered as part of a structured evening program that provides family-style meals, tutoring, and free time in a campus that houses a gymnasium, a craft room, a small library, and a computer lab. These services are offered with one mission in mind: to empower our youth and their families to fulfill their potential.

I was humbled and honored to be elected chairman of the board in January, after serving as a life coach for three years and then a board member for five years. The obstacles that we’ve faced this year brought difficulties that I never expected. But the backdrop of racial and social injustice has forced us to sharpen our focus on the characteristics that define our organization: love, acceptance, and empathy.

Within the walls of M+, love is abundant. Teens who are facing challenges and hardships that most folks wouldn’t dream of, can step into our campus and feel the love of family. Regardless of their circumstances, they are accepted and welcomed into our family with open arms. And while our case managers work with the youth to improve their circumstances, we recognize that the most important thing we can offer is empathy. If there’s one thing I learned during my time as a life coach, it was this: Those who are suffering don’t always need to be lifted from the ditch; they need someone who is willing to get down in the ditch with them.

William Cole

I believe that’s what we offer at Mentoring Plus. It warms my heart when a youth says that this is the one place where they feel like they can truly be themselves. At the same time, it saddens me to consider what they must be facing on a daily basis. And it speaks to the systemic problems we have in our society; problems that have been thrust into the spotlight this year. In April our nightly program was closed to comply with state orders in response to the COVID crisis. Now, as we finally begin to re-establish our program, we are facing some new realities and a lot of new questions.

For an organization built on a foundation of love and acceptance, it’s easy for us to recognize that the violence against black and brown people and other marginalized groups is unacceptable. It’s not just that their rights aren’t respected, but that their lives aren’t valued. We open our doors and our hearts to all of the Isaiahs out there, to offer a place of safety and warmth. We join with the other NKY nonprofits, standing together against racism and any acts that dehumanize people. However, while it can be easy to acknowledge societal problems and offer a safe haven, it’s not so easy to acknowledge the gaps within our own organization.

M+ is an organization with all-white leadership and staff, serving a population whose makeup is diverse and varied. And yet, of the 40+ families that we serve regularly, less than 20% are racial minorities. Of the countless volunteers that keep this organization humming, less than 10% of them are of minority background. And while we might want to pat ourselves on the back about the number of women who serve on the staff or board, we can just as quickly acknowledge that those numbers are typical in the nonprofit sector.

How can it be that, of all the high-risk families who are in need of our services — a segment of the population that is disproportionately black and Latino — only 10-15% of our youth are minorities? Why are the families that need us the most not being connected with our organization?

Les Brown said, “If you want to keep getting what you’re getting, keep doing what you’re doing.”

So we’re changing things, and working on a redevelopment of our recruiting strategies. We’re working with schools to ensure that referrals are for the most vulnerable students, making sure that our program meets the needs of all high-risk demographics. And we’re expanding our volunteer search to go beyond volunteer fairs (often filled with white females) and Kiwanis Clubs (often filled with white males) that have traditionally reliable sources of new help for nonprofits. Of course, we will (and should) continue to recruit from these dependable sources. But if we wish to diversify; to offer the youngsters of our program love and safety from someone that actually looks like them, then we must expand our outreach.

More than anything else, M+ must continue to foster its culture of love and empathy. With each person who walks through our doors we will strive, not to simply solve all of their problems, but to understand them. Those who are suffering don’t always need to be lifted from the ditch; they need someone who is willing to get down in that ditch with them.

William (Billy) Cole is Chairman of the Board of Mentoring Plus.

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One Comment

  1. Don NIEHAUS says:

    Well spoken, Billy! Don Niehaus

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