Although an unseen virus put a damper on volunteer opportunities this past spring, needs in the community continue to exist. One of those is mentoring. Mentoring, according to Columbia-based Ezekiel Ministries, assists underserved children in families suffering from generational poverty.
While most volunteer opportunities occur on a short-term or one-time basis, Ben Landers and his wife, Lauren, are drawn to mentoring at Ezekiel Ministries because he says, “It’s not a one-time thing; it’s more of going deep instead of going wide.”
Ezekiel Ministries was started 11 years ago primarily to strengthen the family structure. Ezekiel’s two main activities are an after-school program and a mentoring program for underserved children. The main focuses of the two programs are academics, character development, spiritual wellness, and teamwork. Ezekiel Ministries also operates EZE Farms, which is a sustainable urban farm started by the organization in 2016 to create apprenticeship opportunities for middle and high school boys. Participants learn the principles of sustainable farming and small business management while also understanding “the good news of God’s kingdom.” There are currently apprenticeship options under consideration for girls as well.
Mentoring director Sally Brown came by her job the same way many on the Ezekiel staff have: not through an advertisement or job recruitment but as a volunteer. She found out about the local mentoring Ezekiel Ministries offers and discovered that one of the Ezekiel After-School Centers had just opened near her house. “That is where I met London, in January 2018, and was matched to be her mentor,” Sally says. “She was an only child, and she and her mother had moved in with her grandmother because London’s mom had just been diagnosed with cancer. My three kids and I would pick her up from after-school on Mondays and go on adventures.”
Sally says that even though London’s mom was battling cancer, London was always full of life. “Her mother and grandmother are both bold, beautiful, hard-working women,” she continues. “We all look forward to our weekly adventures. They are simple — walks in the park, trips to get something sweet — peppered in with a few weekend adventures to an outdoor movie, a museum visit, a play, a trip to a splash pad.”
While mentors like Sally and Ben may initially sign up for the volunteer role as a way to give back and help someone less fortunate, they are often just as affected as their mentees. The impact from her relationship with London and her mom inspired Sally to help spread mentoring in her community. She accepted the role as mentoring director for Ezekiel Ministries and began her role there September 2019. Sally is responsible for leading orientations for potential “Bigs” (mentors) and “Littles” (mentees); screening, interviewing, and matching mentors with their mentees; checking in monthly with both parties; assessing the relationships quarterly regarding safety and communication; and planning quarterly Mentor & Me events.
Because of the ongoing need for mentors in the Columbia and Lexington areas, Ezekiel Ministries is in the process of hiring mentor coaches who, among other tasks, will assist Sally with communications with mentors and mentees.
“I have more kids waiting than I have mentors ready. Finding the right person who is ready and willing to show up, listen, and guide can be a challenge. We heavily screen our mentors to make sure they are up for the challenge because the long-term reward is worth it!”
While the pandemic continues to alter life during 2020, Ezekiel Ministries has remained operating but flexible. “There was a period when we asked mentors to stop meeting in person. We sent a document to mentors encouraging them to think creatively about how they would show up for their Little and their Little’s family.”
A virtual idea contributed by a mentor included Zoom Bingo. Sally used this idea for a Mentor & Me event. Participants either printed their own card or received cards in the mail from Ezekiel. Prizes for winners were awarded. Other ideas offered in the “Mentoring During a Crisis” document included:
- play online games like GamePigeon, Xbox, or PlayStation
- text a quick message and picture
- have a “dance-off” or karaoke with videos sent back and forth.
Mentoring in person during the pandemic became optional for the mentors; however, Sally says that in-person mentoring is still encouraged with the precautions of mask wearing, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and outdoor outings.
No matter what form of virtual interaction and in-person activities are arranged, Sally is confident that mentoring will always be needed. “Mentoring is vital within a community. Each generation is called to help guide the next,” says Sally. “Today’s culture is brutal on families. Children are lured into self-destructive behaviors when they don’t receive enough quality time with loving adults. Through mentoring, the child has another person who can affirm the good things that they see in them. Small moments of affirmation can help kids beat the odds, changing the trajectory of their life forever, and it creates a kindness ripple effect because a child who is mentored will be highly likely to mentor someone else.”
Wayne Jewell became a mentor with Ezekiel Ministries three years ago but first began volunteering with the organization’s after-school program 10 years ago. When school is in session, he also drives the bus twice a week to take children there from some Lexington County elementary schools.
Wayne, whose own two children are grown, says his mentoring relationship with Carmelo, a 9-year-old boy, is not just about doing fun things but about learning lifelong skills and discernment.
“Carmelo goes with me to do things with my family. He likes baseball so we throw the ball a lot. We ride on the back of my motorcycle, window shop at Walmart, and sometimes he works with me since I maintain commercial swimming pools during the summer months. He needs skills to succeed, so I’m always trying to share wisdom and experiences. My goal is not to entertain Carmelo but to help make him become as good a person as he can be. That’s how you make a difference in their lives.”
Wayne explains that working out times to meet with Carmelo is a seamless process with Carmelo’s mother, Aasheema. “I text her to find out if a certain day is good.” Wayne also is in touch periodically with Carmelo’s father, Calvin, regarding Carmelo’s availability.
He adds that Aasheema also communicates to him about Carmelo’s behavior and high points. “He’s a sweet boy, but if something doesn’t go his way, he tends to get moody. I work with him on patience and self-control. Aasheema has told me she’s seen improvements.”
And, while Carmelo may be too young to comprehend the value of the boundaries established in the mentoring relationship, he does grasp the sense of security and commitment expressed by Wayne. “Carmelo asked me one day, ‘How long you going to know me?’ I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’”
Sally shares that Ezekiel encourages mentoring long-term so that a mentor can see a child grow up and encourage them the whole way. When a child is doubting themselves at 16 years old, the mentor can be an extra person who knows the child’s hopes and dreams and reminds them of who they are, based on what they have seen over the many years that they have been matched. “As a result, children make better decisions, families grow stronger, and communities are forever changed,” Sally says. “Parents tell me that their child’s mentor is ‘so much more than a mentor.’”
Margaret Spaulding has been mentoring 11-year-old Ashley since May 2018. “I love it for Ashley,” says Andrea, Ashley’s mother. “Ever since she’s been in the program, I’ve seen a lot of gain with her coming out of her shell. She’s happy, and it’s just wonderful! They have painted together, gone to the zoo, had movie nights, and she just loves Margaret. They talk about everything. Margaret has become a part of the family, and she’s so good about calling or texting and keeping up with us.”
For volunteers who do not feel equipped to mentor but who want to support an organization like Ezekiel Ministries, Sally points out other ways to help: weekly cleaning of the spaces used for mentoring and meeting; sharing skills such as sewing, cooking, and finances as enrichment teachers; and serving as prayer partners.
Josh Whitlock, executive director, stresses that a long-term goal for Ezekiel Ministries is the addition of other apprenticeship programs, besides EZE Farms, so that middle and high school students can learn life-affirming and sustaining skills to carry them into adulthood.
“One of the biggest problems our youth face in economically disadvantaged areas is having healthy opportunities to gain marketable skills,” says Josh. “We must help them find safe environments where they can learn the interpersonal and practical skills that will keep them headed towards livable wage jobs and the financial literacy it takes to run a family. Then when they graduate from high school, they land on their feet. This will be a great service to them, to the health of their future families, and to the health of our communities.”
This past year, Ezekiel Ministries combined programs with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbia and welcomed at least half of their volunteers and most of their existing board members to the Ezekiel Team.
It costs about $125 per month for each child Ezekiel serves in the mentoring program. Funding for Ezekiel Ministries comes primarily from individual donations, business donations, churches, and some small grants. This past May the organization raised almost $40,000 through Midlands Gives. The general operating budget provides income for six full-time staff members and three part-time staff members as well as monies for facility and administrative costs.
Sally maintains that the mentoring experience provides deep and long-term benefits. “An invisible thread will always connect London and her mother and our friendship. We will always be praying for each other and checking in on each other. Through my new role as mentoring director, I have the absolute privilege of letting God use me to match others together, sewing and weaving that invisible thread through our community, knitting hearts together.”