Relations between Deborah Asante and her 17-year-old daughter Maame are strained, to say the least.
Asante left Maame behind with family in Guyana when she moved to the United States, and she was not able to send for her daughter for nine long years.
“I came here so they could have a better life. I worked, worked, worked,” Asante said. “So me and her are not that close.”
After bringing Maame here at age 12, Asante tried to bond with her — taking her shopping and so on — but nothing seemed to work.
You can help
The Schenectady High School mentoring program needs volunteers, especially men. To find out more, email the program coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“She will be in her room, alone, listening to music. By herself. Don’t say a word. If you ask her, ‘How was school?’ she wouldn’t let you finish the conversation. She would jump up, ‘Hey!’ and get upset.”
Asante was shaken.
“It was so bad, I thought something was wrong with her,” she confessed.
At school, guidance counselors thought Maame might just need something she wasn’t able to get on her own. They asked her to consider meeting with a mentor.
Adolescence can be a bitterly lonely time for teenagers who don’t make friends easily and do not turn to their parents for support. Studies suggest that those teenagers give up on school even if they aren’t troublemakers and have the ability to graduate.
Someone to talk to
At Schenectady High School, teachers are trying a new mentoring program to keep those students in school and back on track for graduation.
Maame was one of the first to be paired with a mentor this summer.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” Maame said. “Nobody wants to go to school all day and stay after. But when I met her, I started loving her.”
Her mentor, Ruth Tietz, director of marketing and development at Baptist Health in Glenville, teared up at Maame’s description.
But Maame insisted. “When I need somebody positive, I just talk to her,” she said. “I love her.”
It’s been just a few months, but Asante has already seen a change in Maame.
“Whatever she can’t tell me, she talk to her,” Asante said. “It’s working so great. Now she’s opening little by little to me, ‘This happened in school.’ ”
Tietz hears all about Maame’s school day, but she doesn’t so much commiserate as advise.
The latest problem: getting in trouble for arguing during class. The other student didn’t get caught because the teacher only heard Maame’s voice.
Maame said it was terribly unfair. Tietz didn’t take Maame’s side.
“I said that at work, there would always be someone bugging you. You have to be the bigger person,” Tietz said.
Maame grinned at that. She liked the idea of proving that she can be the bigger person.
Her mother is so impressed that she says Tietz is a blessing.
“They’re helping her be more of who she is,” Asante said. “I’m getting my daughter back.”
With such promising early results, Schenectady officials want to pair many more students. But the program has been constrained by a lack of volunteers willing to serve as mentors. So far, just 32 of Schenectady’s 3,000 high school students have mentors. Program coordinator Jerrine Corallo wants to get mentors for at least 160 students this year.
Mentors are matched by gender, but thus far only seven men have volunteered. That means only seven boys have gotten mentors. Dozens more need help, Corallo said.
“We have a dire need for men,” she said. “For some of these kids, they really just need an adult who can listen.”
Interacting with the mentor can build much-needed social skills or help a student develop the confidence to take a risk and try making friends.
“It’s definitely not something that happens overnight,” Corallo said.
But she’s seeing results.
Gaining social skills
Jason Miller, 15, has only been meeting with his mentor for a few weeks. For now, all Jason says is that he wants to work in computers like his mentor, Dan Mahoney. But his grandmother thinks that Mahoney’s respectful way of treating people and his general good manners are rubbing off as well — and school officials hope that will eventually give Jason the confidence and social skills to make friends his own age.
For years, Jason has come home from school, gone into his room and stayed there, playing video games by himself. He doesn’t have any friends, he said.
“I don’t really have nobody who have the same interests,” he said.
He lives with his grandparents, who have tried to be parents to him — but grandmother Wendy Caswell said they can’t eliminate the pain of missing a mother.
“I think he feels like, a lot of times, deserted,” she said. “One of us is always home when he gets back from school. We try talking to him: Is there something you want to do today? If he needs a ride, Grandpa will take him. But most of the time he just stays in his bedroom, playing his video games.”
He’s good at the games — so good that Minecraft asked him to design a special area for the game’s anniversary. The game allows players to create nearly anything.
His mentor started their friendship by playing video games with him.
The mentor program coordinator hopes that will lead to Jason talking about his feelings while they play.
“If he feels comfortable and he’s able to share, he gets used to people wanting to listen to him. That may help him be more open with others, connect to others,” she said. “If he’s alone and he’s playing and something awesome happens [in the video game], it’s better to have someone to share that with. I would hope he starts to want to have those experiences with his peers.”
So far, he mostly talks about video games. But he’s already won Mahoney’s approval. He visibly straightened when Mahoney said he was “impressed” by Jason’s creations on Minecraft.
Changes at home
His grandmother loves Mahoney. And although she said she thinks Jason is still lonely, she’s already seeing changes.
“He seems to be more patient,” she said. “He’s got a temper — you don’t see it very often but when it comes out, it’s like lions and tigers. But he’s improved in that aspect a lot.”
Jason has been frustrated by his father’s recent arrival at his grandparents’ home, and has been refusing to clean his room — which he derided as “women’s work.” That didn’t go over well with his grandmother.
But lately, she said, his attitude has changed.
“He’s gotten more helpful around the house. He’s helped take the garbage out — which isn’t, I suppose, ‘women’s work’ but it’s something. Little things have changed that you don’t really notice.”
She thinks that having a young, strong male role model is having an effect on Jason.
“Jason looks so forward to Thursdays when he sees Dan,” she said. “Jason’s learned from him, learned about his job. He wants to do what Dan does.”
The mentors say they’re benefitting too. Mahoney just moved back to the region in May and wanted to volunteer as he reconnects with the community. In some ways, he’s lonely too.
He’s enjoyed learning about the games Jason likes, and it’s been fun sharing his own.
“I always said, growing up, I wanted to have a younger brother,” Mahoney said as Jason grinned.
Tietz has volunteered to be a mentor partly because she has no children of her own.
“I love it,” she said. “We were all teenagers at one point, and we survived it, somehow. You can really share with a young person and maybe help them.”
And Maame has taught her how to load music onto her smartphone, which Tietz never before knew how to do.