Kenneth Ward’s enthusiasm for education began many years ago, when he was a child in rural Enfield, North Carolina. His mother, seeing access to high quality education as an essential step towards success, signed him up to be part of a small minority of African American children voluntarily de-segregating predominantly white public schools.
This meant that young Kenneth often felt isolated and put on the spot but, even so, he discovered that he was happiest when learning. He graduated from high school as class valedictorian and went on to the University of North Carolina on a full scholarship.
Again encouraged by family, this time by a grandmother who unexpectedly offered him the money to attend summer school between his freshman and sophomore years, he graduated in 1984, the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
It was these experiences, plus the years he spent as a classroom teacher in D.C. schools and earning a Master’s Degree in Education from Trinity College, that helped to prepare Kenneth for his role today as Executive Director of College Bound, a local non-profit that offers young people the mentoring relationships and enriching experiences that enable them to not only complete high school but to go on to college and to succeed there.
The organization serves over 200 students each year offering not only weekly mentoring meetings but college tours, SAT prep classes, assistance in applying for scholarships and financial aid, as well as opportunities for international travel. For the last three years 100% of those who complete College Bound have graduated from high school and been accepted into college. The program also supports alumni, staying in touch with them at college and offering virtual mentoring.
The money to support these programs comes from foundations, grants and individual donors so fundraising is a significant part of Kenneth’s work. But by far the most significant contributions to the program, he says, are made not financially but by the men and women who serve as volunteer mentors, many of them maintaining relationships with students throughout their four years of high school and then beyond. Some go to see their mentees graduate from college, attend their weddings and remain friends. Kenneth remembers years ago hearing then Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak about the importance of mentoring relationships, affirming that everyone models his or her behavior on someone. Positive mentors, he said, can make a tremendous difference in the lives of young people.
College Bound mentors are asked to commit to serving for at least a year (though ideally they maintain a relationship with one student for the four years of high school). They meet one-on-one with their mentees one evening a week for two hours at one of the program’s five sites. Mentors also make a commitment to getting together once a month for an activity outside of the classroom – a ball game, a movie, a meal out or just a walk and talk. In essence, Kenneth Ward says, a mentor is someone who believes in a young person and feels that he or she can go to college. It’s someone who shows up regularly and is willing to both listen and to give honest feedback.
At Sherwood Recreation Center on 10th Street NE, College Bound meets on Mondays from 5:30 – 7:30. Currently there is a need for at least eight more mentors there. On a recent Monday evening mentors worked with their regular mentees while site coordinators from Sherwood and other sites and Kenneth Ward himself filled in for the needed mentors. Daniela Romualdo, site coordinator for two other College Bound sites, one at Shaw Library and the other at Walker Memorial Baptist Church, was there to help and reflected on her own experiences. As a student at Banneker High School, she attended College Bound which, she said, pushed her not only academically but personally. “It just helped me to be more active,” she said. “I am a huge advocate of giving back and mentoring. I enjoy sharing experiences that can help others, especially women and the Latin community, to obtain opportunities.”
Another graduate of College Bound who returned to be part of the program as a site manager and coordinator of on-line aspects of the program, Zion Kelly attended Thurgood Marshall Academy in DC and went on to college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. “College Bound helped me get scholarships and it also prepared me for life after high school,” he says. Two trips to Ghana with the program opened his eyes to a lot of history he hadn’t known.
Andre Cox is in his second year as site coordinator at Sherwood. He did not attend College Bound but he did have an important experience with a mentor. At his high school, Uncommon Charter in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the gym teachers took a special interest in young men and boys who he thought might be struggling. He started a group called “Men of Tomorrow” which would meet in the mornings before school and offer opportunities for students to talk about their lives and the challenges they were facing. A college graduate and a veteran, he set an example of someone who had done well and who was willing to invest time in young men. “At College Bound,” Andre says, “we like to say that everybody has mentors. It’s important to have a good one.” He went on from high school to Lafayette College where he studied economics and met the woman who became his wife; she is a graduate of College Bound.
Matt Aksamit, a tax attorney, eloquently sums up why he mentors and what the experience has meant to him. “I mentor,” he says, “because in my personal life and in my career, each ‘lucky’ moment came from another person taking an interest in me and showing me how to use my own tools to help myself when I got stuck. I am thankful for all of the mentors I’ve had over the years and continue to have today.” Watching the young man he mentored graduate from College Bound and head off to college has been deeply satisfying. “We still talk regularly,” he says, “and I’m excited to watch him thrive.” An added benefit has been feeling more connected to this community through meeting other mentors and the families of the young people they mentor.
They have a saying at College Bound — “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” By providing structure, opportunities and, most importantly, mentors, College Bound makes climbing those stairs so much less daunting than it might otherwise be. And for those who volunteer their time and talent as mentors, the rewards are immeasurable.
Anyone interested in learning more about College Bound or in becoming a mentor should go to firstname.lastname@example.org or consult www.collegebound.org. You may also call 202-842-0858. Requirements for mentors include a B.A. degree, having a background check and attending training.