What if I told you there’s a relatively foolproof way to change our city for the better? Would you sign up? The truth is that mentoring is magic. Not because you’re perfect, but because you’re there. We’ve got some stories for you, if you need convincing.
Marquino Douglas was 13 when he met his mentor, Marron Thomas—the man who, years later, would marry Marquino and his wife. As a young man, though, first at Georgian Hills Middle and then at Frayser High, Marquino was like so many Memphis teenagers: full of potential, but fighting an uphill battle. Marquino navigated a childhood he describes as rough: there was never enough, and his mom was constantly trying to make ends meet. Throughout the challenges, Marron was a constant in Marquino’s life—as his sister was sick, as his brother was shot, and as Marquino went off to Lane College and made plans for his future.
Today, 15 years later, Marquino is back in Frayser, working at the ministry that touched his life. He says that at some point, while considering what his career would look like, he had a realization: “There are so many children who just need one person cheering for them, one person taking time with them, and they will soar.” Marquino wanted to be a part of that. Leadership Empowerment Center still serves the same community in Frayser and Marron Thomas still leads it—reaching out to another generation of young leaders. And Marquino is passing the mentoring gift on to Cameron Cobb, a senior at MLK Prep who has been accepted to UT Martin for the fall.
This is the power of mentoring: having a person, or more than one person, who is present through the ups and downs. There’s no perfect way to mentor, no secret code, and the mentor doesn’t have to be perfect—just present. And that presence, through the challenges of a young life, can make all the difference in the world.
The statistics are easy to find—55% of mentored youth are more likely to enroll in college. They’re also 130% more likely to hold leadership positions. There’s no denying the power. But it’s also true that one-third of all children will grow up without a mentor, and that’s something we’ve got to change. The people we interviewed for this story are doing their best to change that number, and they’re starting by passing on the gift of mentoring that they received.
Mandie Johnson grew up spending time at Memphis Athletic Ministries, back before they really even had programs for girls. Mandie describes why mentors were so important to her, “My parents worked hard to be providers, which meant they weren’t always able to spend intentional time with me. My MAM mentors stepped in and made sure I felt loved, heard, and seen.” Mandie stayed involved with MAM and met Coach Derek Webster, who she says was an important father figure in her life. When we talked, Mandie reflected on the importance for all children to have a father figure—and how a few people had played that role in her life. She refers to Coach Webster, Reggie Davis, and Jonathan Torres as her “GodFathers”—men who Mandie was able to watch treat their wives and coworkers with respect and dignity, and who taught her to expect that as well.
Today, Mandie is a MAM employee, coordinating volunteers and writing grants. But for years, even before she found her way back to MAM, Mandie has mentored a young woman named Sequoia, who is now a student at Jackson State University. When Mandie reflects on the role mentoring played in her own life, she thinks about what it means for her relationship with Sequoia: “Mentors have shaped every stage of my life, and I’m so glad to be able to do the same for her. Mentors choose to spend our time, efforts, gas, food, and more on these kids because it was done for us by other mentors.”
Mentoring has its ups and downs, as any mentor can tell you. Alvin Mims was mentored by the Browns, a couple involved with Streets Ministries, from middle school on and became a part of their family. He made great strides, becoming a stronger reader and playing football in school. But some bad decisions as a young man landed him in jail for a time—a place where he says he was able to take a step back and plan for a different kind of life, reflecting on his continued support from the Browns, and things they had taught him. After he had served his time, Alvin moved in with his mentors as he got back on his feet—and he also returned to the program that had introduced him to them in the first place, Streets Ministries.
Today, despite having a full time job that often rolls on to overtime, Alvin volunteers regularly with the teenagers on Vance Avenue. He’s determined to offer them the support that has brought him to where he is today. You can hear from Alvin’s mentors and learn more about his story here—but the heart of it can be heard in Alvin’s own words: “I remember being 13 years old and saying, because I was given the chance to meet the family that I met, that I always was going to come back and do the same thing.”
Memphis has a strong culture of mentoring and programs that have been around for generations, allowing stories like these to unfold. From churches to synagogues and sports teams to chess clubs, Memphians invest in the lives of our youth. From NBA veteran Elliot Perry, who speaks regularly on the power of mentoring, to people like Marquino and Mandie and Alvin, we are blessed to be a blessing. And you can be a part of that.
Remember, mentors don’t have to be NBA stars, and they don’t have to mentor as a full time job. They just need to give an hour or so a week and to be present in a life—to say “I see you. I hear you. I think you can do this.”