HOUSTON- In the Briarmeadow Charter School library one Wednesday, 8-year-old Evan, a biracial child of a single mom, played chess with Floyd Guest, a 78-year-old lawyer and Duke alumnus. Guest had thrown a T-shirt over his Windsor knot because he comes here from Toastmasters, then leaves straight for the office. As Evan took out Guest's pawn with a rook, a sly grin crept onto Evan's face. Guest had one word: "Nice."
Guest, a member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, spends one hour a week with Evan as part of his church's Kids Hope USA mentoring program. Its "one child--one hour" approach connects 6,800 mentors with 6,800 at-risk children at 415 schools nationwide, but the program also builds a unique and intimate connection between typically affluent white suburbanites and the typically poorer minority families whose children they mentor.
Kids Hope founder Virgil Gulker (see WORLD, June 28, 1997) points out that students benefit from the program but so do mentors: The students are often "the only person of that race with whom they have a named relationship." Rapidly growing Houston is one city badly in need of such relationship-building, for it is now a polyglot of fractionalized enclaves, including the third-largest Hispanic and Vietnamese concentrations in the country.
The Census Bureau estimates that more than 100 languages are spoken in Houston. According to the Texas Education Agency, only 9 percent of Houston Independent School District students are Caucasian. Nearly a third have limited English proficiency. Barbara Elliott, president of the Center for Renewal in Houston, puts it like this: "We are a learning lab for the nation in dealing with increasing diversity."
Kids Hope is also in action at Treasure Forest Elementary, only a mile from Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church-but the two, like Floyd Guest and Evan, are economically and culturally miles apart.
One church parishioner, Lillian Phillips, who is Polish and speaks little Spanish, has through Kids Hope mentored Barbara, a Hispanic third-grader. For them, their hour-a-week sessions span a once-substantial cultural divide. Phillips has become part of Barbara's world, she believes, not by helping her draw right angles, which she did on this day, but by visiting the small apartment Barbara shares with her mom and asking what needs aren't being met.
Catalina Brand, Kids Hope director at Treasure Forest, grew up in South America and knows that "it is not easy" to enter American culture-but even she was surprised when she took a group of mentors and students to Houston's Museum of Natural Science. "We got to the museum and these 7- and 8-year-old children didn't know what dinosaurs were. Most of them had never seen them in books or pictures," she said, but Kids Hope is "opening new doors of knowledge for children."
Imelda de la Guardia, Treasure Forest's principal, describes Kids Hope with words like consistency and hope, two things many of her students lack. The Title 1 school has a student body that's 95 percent Hispanic; nine of 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. On her watch, the school has done an about-face in three years, achieving exemplary status from the state.
Gasper Mir, the Houston school district's head of strategic partnerships, also praises Kids Hope: "Cross-culturalization is a tremendous positive, particularly when you don't have trust or openness." The here-for-the-long-haul attitude of Kids Hope mentors is important; a study by the nonprofit Public/Private Ventures showed only about half the volunteers in 700 mentoring programs staying for a year or more, but 57 percent of Kids Hope mentors volunteer for three years or more. Mir says, "It takes time to build confidence."
Kids Hope founder Gulker says that even Yankton, S.D., with one almost-all-white Kids Hope program, has walls to tear down within its middle-class monolith. In Yankton, Houston, and elsewhere, mentors grow to love those they bond with, and then, as Imelda de la Guardia put it, "they get to see why the kids they already love are the way they are."