Cook: How to rebuild a city, one relationship at a time

Cook: How to rebuild a city, one relationship at a time

May 19th, 2015 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Executive director Dr. Elaine Swafford talks Tuesday about the system of benchmarking and achievement tracking in the data room and teachers' lounge of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Several months ago, Dr. Elaine Swafford spoke at Baylor School's annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

During her address, Swafford, the principal of Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, spoke of her dream to create a mentoring program throughout Chattanooga, then asked the audience a question.

"What will you do to have a purposeful impact in this community?" she said. "Won't you join me?"

Swafford's dream is right as rain and as old as time. Mentoring is the truest form of social uplift, an apolitical medicine that affects and heals both mentor and mentee by putting into place a dynamic relationship built on meaning, respect and love. Into the cracks where neglect and violence grow, mentoring brings the firm ground of hope.

When at-risk teens are introduced with quality mentoring relationships, their worlds change, as if they suddenly inhabit some new, hopeful ZIP code. Teens with mentors are more likely to play sports, enroll in college, hold leadership positions, graduate from college, volunteer in their community and engage in positive relationships, according to research from the National Mentoring Project.

If you go

What: Be a Mentor and Take 12 event, citywide mentoring event
Where: AT&T Field
When: Thursday, May 21, 6 p.m.
To sign up: Register at www.cglaonline.com/empower or call 423-602-9479.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

It's not rocket science. It's not even political science.

It's the simple power that comes from positive relationships between adult and child.

"You can't just treat the academic side of the child," Swafford said. "You have to feed their human spirit, as well."

Now, back to Baylor.

After Swafford's talk, a man walked up. It was Julian Kaufman, Baylor's strength and conditioning coach.

He told Swafford he had the same dream.

"To see every child in Chattanooga who needs a mentor to have one," Kaufman said.

"That's when all this started," Swafford said.

In the four months between then and now, Swafford and Kaufman have teamed up with Dr. Charles Mitchell at Brainerd High. They've talked with people in Washington and Nashville, shaken hands with business leaders, partnered with community leaders, held public meetings all to make their dream a reality.

It happens Thursday night at AT&T Field.

It's the Empower kickoff -- "Be a Mentor and Take 12" -- for Chattanooga's citywide mentoring program.

They want to pack the Lookouts stadium.

"Our dream is to fill all 6,700 seats," Kaufman said.

If you're interested in mentoring, come. If you want to meet a mentee, come. If you need a mentor, come. If you can't mentor but want to learn more to tell others, come.

They're presenting an easy, efficient model: only 12 hours a year.

"We'll bring children to you, if necessary," Swafford said.

Swafford will provide the training if businesses promise to host mentees for one-on-one mentoring between kids and employees. It creates relationship, while also giving teens exposure to the outside business world.

Monday morning, for example, Swafford took 20 CGLA girls to TVA. Other companies like EPB have signed up.

"Exposure is so important for kids from disadvantaged homes," Swafford said.

Swafford said Mayor Andy Berke will be there Thursday night, along with singer-songwriter Jimmy Wayne, state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood and Sue Anne Wells, who sits on the National Mentoring Project board.

This mentoring dream is a public-private-nonprofit partnership born out of our city's can-do creativity and bounce-back resilience. Along with $1 billion in tourism, and the Gig and VW, and being named one of the best places to live, this mentoring vision would add to our city's moral resume.

"Let us add to our reputation and legacy that we cared for our children like no other city," Kaufman said.

He would know.

"My father left our household," Kaufman said "Before he left, he taught me to be verbally abusive, smoke pot and indulge in pornography. I was in trouble at school and at times with the law. Then a mentor came in my life. Now, I am a husband of 22 years. A father of three children including one in college. A business owner. A coach. Most of all, I am and have been a mentor with a family tree not of my own."

One of those people he mentored? Dr. Mitchell, at Brainerd, who's now mentoring hundreds of other kids every day.

Now, imagine that same mentor-magic happening in the lives of kids across the city.

Thousands of kids.

As many kids as there are seats at AT&T Field.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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