Turning Risk Into Reward
DON MCNEILL HAS A PASSION FOR HELPING AT-RISK YOUTH.
While he was a track coach at Sahuaro High School from 1986 to 1989, one of his student athletes committed suicide. That tragedy spurred McNeill to action, and in 1995 he became the Executive Director of One-On-One Mentoring, which gives Tucson’s at-risk youth a positive alternative to crime and substance abuse. Then, in 2007, he followed the lead of a Scottsdale organization and became Executive Director of Mentoring Tucson’s Kids (formerly known as MentorKids USA/Tucson), a faith-based one-on-one mentoring organization.
“Mentoring Tucson’s Kids” (MTK) matches caring adults with at- risk youth, ages five through 17,” says McNeill. “We focus on youth living in single-parent homes, those who are victims of domestic violence, and those who have had some type of contact with the juvenile justice system,” he explains. “Our program is primarily designed for kids who are a part of the foster care system, are living in group homes or have a parent who is incarcerated. More than 20,000 kids in Pima County have at least one parent who is incarcerated — that is more than in San Diego County, which has a larger population of 2.1 million,” he notes.
The kids are referred to MTK by schools, churches and about 25 agencies in Pima County. “There is an incredible need for mentors,” McNeill states. “I go to churches throughout Pima County and challenge the congregation to adopt a school and become servants to that school. You don’t need to preach your faith — you need to live your faith,” he stresses. “We get people out of their pews and into the community.”
McNeill recalls one young boy whose home life was in such disarray that he told his mentor he would rather die than continue living at home. “The boy and his mentor went on a MTK fishing trip, and this boy took first place and received a trophy. That next week at school, he was a big deal and really admired! We help these at- risk youth experience something that might motivate them to work through all odds, and become the person we know they can be.” By the way, this young boy eventually was taken out of his home, his mom cleaned up her act and a year later he went back home.
Mentoring Tucson’s Kids works hard to successfully match the mentor with a mentee with similar interests. Their activities can include such things as sporting events, hiking, picnics, bike rides, horseback rides, golf, bowling, concerts, life skills training and job preparation. To be an MTK mentor, you do not need any special skills, but you do need a caring heart and a love of being with kids. “Our oldest mentor was 89; we also have teenagers who partner with their parents to mentor.”
Prospective mentors must fill out an application, pass a back- ground check, be fingerprinted, have a safe driving record, provide four good references, be personally interviewed and go through training. The initial training session lasts two to three hours, and every month for the first year there are workshops on different topics. “We ask that a mentor commit to a year of weekly visits, or nine months if they are a college student. “Having a mentor is literally life changing for most kids as long as the mentor is consistent, caring and compassionate. If you say you will be there every week, you must do it.”
There are currently about 75 kids matched up with mentors, and about an equal number of children on the MTK waiting list. “We tend to get more females volunteering to help as mentors; as a result we have more boys on our waiting list. My goal is to not have a waiting list a year from now.”
Besides being a mentor, volunteers can serve as chaperones for events, provide office help and assist with fundraising events and community service projects.
MTK primarily is funded through donations from individuals and private family foundations. There also are two fundraising golf tournaments held each year. The Eddie Vosberg Celebrity Golf For Youth tournament is held in the fall and benefits both MTK and the One-on-One mentoring program.
The second golf tournament — “Our Mentoring Tucson’s Kids Golf Challenge” — will be held in Tubac on May 10, 2013. “Participants in that tournament get pledges based on the number of holes they play.” MTK also holds a fundraising “Help Save Our Kids Breakfast” in both Oro Valley and Green Valley.
“Mentoring a youth can be life changing and rewarding. I think most mentors get even more out of this than the kids!”
To find out more about Mentoring Tucson’s Kids, click on www. mentorkidstucson.com or call (520) 624-4765. — Wendy Sweet