People often use the word "miraculous" when it isn't really necessary, but for Bernard Draper, a youth participant in a program called Student Mentor Partners, the word is fitting. Draper sees his volunteer mentor's work as more than a simple coincidence.
"My relationship with Greg is very important to me. Since I lost my father, it seems that God sent Greg to take his place in so many ways," Draper said. "Greg has not only been like a father to me, he has been a supporter, a motivator and he has introduced me to so many things. Greg has just been a joy to know."
Greg Leslie is one of many mentors at work with Student Mentor Partners, an organization that makes private school affordable and accessible for lower-income, at-risk youth in the Detroit area. Since 1998, the program has grown from a small effort involving three local young people into a mature organization that works with more than 35 boys and girls at 11 area schools.
SMP's focus "is on the academically average or marginal student who, without proper guidance and support, may 'fall through the cracks,' become frustrated with school, and eventually drop out," according to the group's mission statement.
"The bottom line of our program is that 99 percent of the kids that stick with our program graduate high school," Alan Hibbert, a member of the group's board told HuffPost, "and about 90 percent of those are accepted into some form of higher education."
SMP pairs its students with mentors, often retirees and socially-conscious college students. It also helps students with up to $2,000 annually to help pay tuition costs. The group is a nonprofit funded by a mix of individuals, foundations and businesses.
Draper is not the only one to praise the impact SMP and his mentor, Leslie, have had on his life. Jessica Johnson, a mentor coordinator for SMP, said she was surprised to see how well mentor and mentee got along together.
"It was amazing because they began to communicate and meet with each other far more than the four-hour-per-month requirement," Johnson said. "They saw each other twice a week, attending Pistons Games, playing laser tag, enjoying Detroit Symphony Orchestra concerts. From the beginning, Bernard was a student who took our program seriously and worked hard to learn everything he could from it. This was a true friendship in the making!"
Mentors often approach SMP themselves, but the group also relies on its network to locate individuals interested in mentoring. Schools usually recommend students as mentees. SMP then matches up students and mentors according to gender and personal compatibility. It also sets up group activities for SMP participants, checks in on the progress of mentors and students and organizes workshops to help maintain a healthy, long-term relationship for both.
"We build life skills and [create] long-term friendships with students, helping them get through high school and go on to college," said Candace Campbell, 23, an AmeriCorps volunteer for SMP. "It's really a four-year dedication. They start with with freshmen and the mentor sticks with them until they graduate."
Campbell works not only as a mentor coordinator, but also as a mentor herself. When asked for her assessment of the program, the enthusiasm in her voice was hard to miss.
"I love it. It's really effective and the students really look forward to it. I've gone to Mercy to interview girls for the program and they're just super excited that there's someone who wants to look out for them," she said.
SMP encourages interested parents, teens and mentors to get in touch at www.studentmentorpartners.org.
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As 2011 comes to a close, HuffPost Detroit looks to honor those who made an impact in our city this year. The 2011 Detroit Impact series will profile one organization per day until the end of the year. There are 11 organizations included in the series (see them all in the slideshow below), but there are dozens more doing good in and around Detroit. For full coverage of the people and organizations helping others, visit HuffPost Detroit Impact.
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