31 years in, Caldwell Friends still pairing kids with mentors

Sep. 17, 2013 @ 06:30 AM

Like most kids his age, Zion Norwood is shy around adults he doesn’t know.

But Curtis Pearson isn’t just any adult. Around Pearson, the owner of Curt’s Barber Stylists in Lenoir, 10-year-old Zion lights up.

Around anyone else, he speaks the preferred language of the preteen, a cluster of nonverbal signals heavy on shrugs and nods. With Pearson, he’ll chime in at the end of a sentence or show him a cheat in the game he’s playing on his Nintendo DS. When asked by Pearson who would win an arm-wrestling contest, him or Pearson, Zion’s voice is loud and clear (and tinged with admiration).

“You,” he says.

Pearson isn’t Zion’s father. He’s not an improbable older brother or a particularly invested uncle. He’s his friend.

Specifically, he’s his mentor – through Caldwell Friends, a nonprofit based in downtown Lenoir. The organization, a United Way agency, pairs at-risk kids referred by school counselors with volunteer mentors, who spend at least two hours with them every week. The goal, program manager Liz Eller said, is to “inspire, enrich and enable” kids.

During those weekly visits, mentors often set up activities, but it can also be something as simple as running errands together. Zion and Pearson go to Bo’s in Lenoir or to the pool, but Zion also hangs out around Pearson’s barber shop.

Caldwell Friends is a relatively small organization, both figuratively and physically, with rented office space wedged a few stories over West Avenue in downtown Lenoir. But the nonprofit also has some serious longevity: July 1 marked the start of its 31st year in Caldwell County.

That puts Eller and her coworkers in a position to see the effects of what they’re doing, even if they’re seeing it decades after a kid walks into their office.

Studies have shown that children who participate in mentoring programs are more likely to stay in school, less likely to use drugs or drink underage, more likely to continue their education after high school and less likely to become a teen parent.

Those effects build. Many of them can’t be seen until after a kid has left the doors of a mentoring agency.

“I don’t think it’s one of those tangible things you can see,” Pearson said. “It’s not like working at a soup kitchen.”

In her office, Eller has tacked up pieces of green construction paper. Each has a different statistic written on it, reminding mentors that the kids they meet with every week are less likely to do a whole of bad things and more likely to do some good ones as well.

The snippets of paper are there so mentors can remember, should the day ahead of them seem ordinary, that futures are made of tiny slices of days, and that making one piece better might shift things in a kid’s favor.

“It’s not measurable right away,” Eller said. “But you see it. You see it in the big picture."

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some effect in the here and now. Children with mentors have someone to talk to, sometimes just-because, Eller said.

“It’s showing them that there’s someone who cares in their life,” Pearson said. “Not just a teacher, not just a mom, not just a dad. It’s, ‘There’s someone right here in front of me who cares, as a friend.’”

It also makes a difference for Zion. Zion, who wants to be a pro football player and dives like a pro.

“Zion has great potential,” Eller said. “For someone to know that and encourage that – that’s what a mentor does.”