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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.

Long ago, here's how it happened for Julian Kaufman.

Growing up in the '70s, he was poor, fatherless and surrounded by some Dickensian landscape of ghetto-ized hopelessness.

But he had two things going for him. And sometimes, that's all it takes.

His mom, who believed in him.

And his football coach.

When Kaufman got kicked off the team for causing trouble -- the police knew him by name -- his coach did something remarkable. He saw Kaufman not as he was, but as he could be.

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David Cook

If you go

* What: Mentoring informational event
* Where: Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, 1802 Bailey Ave.
* When: Thursday, April 9, at 6 p.m.

"He loved me back into the fold," Kaufman said. "He basically became my father."

(Remember that.)

Kaufman made it to Furman, perhaps the poorest guy on a country club campus. One night, friends invited him to the movies. He said no -- couldn't afford the popcorn, much less a ticket -- yet as they drove off to the film, Kaufman peered into the car and saw the stunning woman who would one day become his wife.

And she was from Chattanooga.

After Furman, they moved here, and Kaufman began teaching. First at Hixson, then Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, now Baylor School. Wherever he goes, one motivation guides him: to help young disadvantaged men and women in the same way his football coach helped him.

And that's how it happened for Charles Mitchell.

Growing up in the '80s, Mitchell was dirt-floor poor, surrounded by a landscape of drugs and gangland violence. He wasn't fatherless, but should have been: His alcoholic dad once held a sawed-off shotgun to young Charles' head.

But he had two things. And sometimes, that's all it takes.

His mom, who believed in him.

And his football coach at Hixson.

Guess who.

"Julian Kaufman," said Mitchell.

Mitchell was a freshman at Hixson High; Kaufman was a coach there. Mitchell had no bus money, no car, so after practice, he'd walk three hours home to East Chattanooga.

One day, Kaufman offered him a ride home.

And that was all it took.

"He was like a dad and mentor to me," said Mitchell. "He built that one-on-one relationship. I knew he wanted the best for me."

(Remember that.)

Today, Mitchell is a new man. With a wife and family, he has earned his doctorate and now is an assistant principal at Brainerd High.

"I couldn't have done it without Coach Kaufman," Mitchell said.

In the story of our lives, it's not some firehouse rescue that saves us. It's the slow and gradual. It's the everyday presence. A ride home. A phone call. Meals together. Put together, they become the weather that turns even the hardest parts of us soft. Sometimes, all the policies in the world can't compare to the power of an encouraging relationship.

"The greatest need for our kids in Chattanooga is a relationship with an adult who has time, wisdom and encouragement," said Kaufman.

So, they have an idea.

Mitchell and Kaufman have joined up with Dr. Elaine Swafford at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy to create one of the most promising, pay-it-forward ideas of social uplift.

The Empower Program -- a city full of mentors.

"We're calling on our city," said Mitchell. "Whether you're retired, clergy or business, anybody can make a difference in a child's life."

They're asking for 12 hours a year of intentional relationship with some young person. They'll come to you -- at work, church or home -- to train you on the hows and whys of mentorship. Then, in a moment you won't ever forget, they'll introduce you to an area teen -- from Sale Creek to East Lake -- that craves even the tiniest of positive influence from some adult.

"It's a thing of beauty," said Mitchell. "The kids I encounter at Brainerd and elsewhere -- Hispanic, black, poor, rich -- they are all looking for somebody that sees the best in them, no matter what."

This is no tiny program. Folks from TVA are involved, and BlueCross and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Swafford, Mitchell and Kaufman have spoken with mayors, senators and national experts on mentoring.

"We've been on the phone with the governor's office," said Swafford.

Thursday night, at 6, there's an informational meeting at CGLA for anyone interested. Later in May, they hope to fill AT&T Stadium with mentors and kids in a grand act of relationship building.

"Our community is in dire need of this," said Mitchell. "We can all point fingers, or we can be part of the solution."

And that's how it happens.

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

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