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Mentoring Relationship Has Mutual Benefits

“You need a village for these children,” explains Helen Harriss, whose great-grandson, Andre Dawson, really enjoys spending time with his “Big Friend,” Darren Humphreys, as part of Project Friendship, a mentoring program at Family & Children’s Agency in Norwalk. “Andre is crazy about Darren,” she continues, “and they connect very well.”

For his part, Mr. Humphreys, a Norwalk resident who has worked with his “Little Friend” Andre for about two years, feels, “It’s very much a symbiotic relationship, and I benefit from it just as much as Andre does. I have no children of my own, so being with Andre helps me get a very good ‘vibe’ of what pre-teens are like, and what they’re going through. He keeps me in touch. And it gives me a sense of pride when he has a significant achievement at school or in sports.”

Unlike school-based mentoring, Project Friendship is a community-based program that allows a mentor to become more fully involved in a child’s life. The Agency has two “divisions” in its mentoring program – Project Friendship involves adults, and Jr. Project Friendship includes high school students, all of whom work with children ages 6 through 14. This year, 25 adults from Darien, New Canaan, Norwalk, Rowayton, Stamford, Westport and Wilton are involved in the program, along with 45 students from those communities as well as Weston.

Being a mentor fulfills “a sense of civic duty” for Mr. Humphreys. While he understands that many people choose to make monetary contributions to support a community or a cause, he explained, “I prefer to feel like I’m making a concrete, hands-on contribution. For example, working with Andre, I can see the results, and the benefits, right in front of me.”

Once Mr. Humphreys decided to become a mentor, he contacted Lucy Connell, Supervisor of Mentoring Programs at Family & Children’s Agency. “In setting up a mentoring relationship, the initial focus is on making sure that the mentor understands the philosophy and purpose of the program,” according to Mrs. Connell. After a potential mentor completes an application, he or she has an interview with Mrs. Connell or another Agency staff member, and the Agency also conducts a complete background check on the applicant. The focus is to determine a basis for the matching the mentor with an appropriate child. Mr. Humphreys noted, “(The Agency) did a lot of due diligence on me, and I on them. They made a concerted effort to figure out who I was, and they did a really good job.” He continued, “You’ve got to be very forthright about what you want – for example, someone you can work with and have an impact on or someone who’s already been ‘formed’ as a young person.”

The Agency arranges monthly meetings for mentors to share questions and guidance with each other and with the social workers who oversee the program. The organization also sponsors several events, such as holiday parties and picnics, where mentors and their ‘mentees’ can interact with others in the program. Active supervision of each relationship continues for three years, and Mrs. Connell notes that she and other Agency staff members are available at all times to talk to mentors and mentees if any issues arise.
After connecting a mentor with a mentee, the Agency expects that they will spend at least three hours per week together for at least two years.

Mr. Humphreys, who generally spends significantly more time with Andre, believes, “If you’re going to take it seriously, and do it right, I think that’s the bare minimum amount of time.” When they first met, he and Andre would share activities like walking his two Labrador retrievers around his neighborhood and talking. Mr. Humphreys commented, “Andre’s always been pretty gregarious. Everyone knows him here in the neighborhood, and they’re always saying hello to him.”

Very soon, the two began biking, and then kayaking. He said that they also go out to dinner and to local attractions like Norwalk’s Maritime Aquarium, as well as museums in New York City. He noted, however, that “balance is a really key point. You can’t just do all one thing. So, if we go into the city to the Museum of Natural History, we might go to ESPN Zone for a fun lunch.” They also cook together at Mr. Humphreys’ house, and Andre recalls preparing homemade pizzas to determine whether a pizza with bacon was better than a pepperoni version.

In addition to sharing their enjoyment of sports and other activities, Mr. Humphreys is involved in Andre’s academic life. Earlier this year, when Andre’s grades were slipping, his great-grandmother talked to his teachers and then let Mr. Humphreys know about the situation. As she noted,” We both were on Andre ‘big time’ to pull up his grades, and he has done it.” Mr. Humphreys explained his role by saying, “I can show him that, if you work hard, you can succeed.”

Andre summarized his own views by explaining, “I feel I can really talk to Darren. We have serious talks every once in a while. He tells me about his work, and I tell him about school. And, he says that I should do really well in school because it will help me in my life.”

To learn more about becoming a mentor in the Agency’s program, please call (203) 855-8765 or visit our Volunteer Services page.