David Burke may have had five fathers growing up, but he never had that one stable male influence in his life.
"Most of the time I was raised by a single mom, without a man around. When my mom would get married, I would try to develop a relationship with the husband … but she was married five times," Burke said.
In the midst of this revolving door of stepfathers, Burke did have one man who tried to fill that void, at least a little.
"I remember one Sunday school teacher who showed an interest in me … even now, 50 years later, he still checks on me. But I can still remember back to those early days — they meant a lot in my life.
"He didn’t ask the deep, dark questions, but he was somebody who showed an interest in who I was."
Burke sees many young people in situations similar to his own. He sees so many because he seeks them out. For nearly 20 years Burke has worked with youth at various churches in Rockdale and Newton counties, including his latest effort to develop a youth program at the recently created Jersey Community Church.
Burke is also a local mentor. Two years ago he signed up with Newton Mentoring, a recently created non-profit that partners with the Newton County School System to provide one-on-one mentoring to needy youth. Newton Mentoring gives Burke a chance to be the father-figure in the lives of young men who appear to be losing their way without one.
"What they’re going through might be something I can relate because of my history. The mentoring program here is basically to let the kids know that somebody cares. It’s to have someone consistently come and spend time with the kids," said Burke, who currently mentors third graders Brandon Borg and J’ontae Peaks.
"I show up every Friday with these young men. Even the second time I came, you could see them thinking "Hey, he’s here. He came back." My whole purpose is to let them know somebody cares about them, somebody who’s not a parent or teacher. There’s nothing magical."
Margaret Washington is the director of Newton Mentoring and she needs a great deal more David Burkes in her program. About two-thirds of the children who need mentoring are males, and because Washington tries to match kids based on gender she frequently lacks enough male mentors. That’s why Burke and others have to double up, instead of being able to mentor one-on-one.
All mentees must be enrolled in the NCSS, but they can be recommended either teachers or parents. Washington said students are often chosen because they have academic, behavioral or emotional problems. Mentors can help tutor students, but tutoring isn’t required. Mentors simply need to have a love of children and be able to spend one hour per week with that child on a constant schedule during the school year.
"Mentors come from all walks of life. They can be business people, attorneys or retirees. You do what you can," Washington said. "This year volunteering has been slow. More people have gone back to work, and some jobs aren’t allowing for those long lunch breaks anymore."
The program was created by a group of civic leaders, including members like Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. and NCSS Superintendent Dr. Steve Whatley. Washington said the leaders decided a centralized mentoring organization was needed.
"There were several mentoring programs in schools and communities. They would start out strong, but then the organizer would leave and the groups would fall apart," she said.
Since 2008 Newton Mentoring has grown to about 60 mentors, but Washington said she still needs 50 more. She’s been spreading the word during January, which is National Mentoring Month.
Mentors help children of all races and ethnicities, but Washington does attempt to pair younger mentors with older children. She recruits from churches, clubs, organizations – anywhere that’s willing to listen.
The group gets a lot of local support, including a free office from the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, a free computer from Bard Medical and free telephones from the Greyland Development Corporation.
"The emphasis is that we need mentors and money. We have a big need for paper for all of the application, manuals and forms we use as well as general office supplies. We also have to pay for background tests and all of those costs add up," she said.
In additional to general mentors, Washington is looking for adults for a new program starting up at Sharp. As part of the $283,447 Caring Communities System of Care grant received by the NCSS in October, 25 students will be matched with mentors provided by Newton Mentoring. Washington is still looking for 10 more mentors to focus on this group of high schools students who need more positive reinforcement.
Washington said only 3 percent of the grant is going to Newton Mentoring, so the organization still needs significant financial support.
Burke said the feeling of mentoring is rewarding, although the results often aren’t immediately obvious.
"It’s been my experience with youth that sometimes it’s 10 or 15 year later that you realize what an impact you had. I’ve been very lucky to have taught kids in church 15 years ago, and I’ve seen them married with children. One kid came up to me and said ‘I remember one thing you said and it made a difference.’ Another one said ‘I really appreciate you being there all those years.’ That’s your payment," he said.
"But you may never see it. You ask ‘Am I doing any good?’ Who knows? Only the child knows and you may never find out."
Burke has seen children grow up to become preachers, foreign missionaries, doctors and loving husbands and fathers. He said it takes time to develop those relationships, especially with older children who aren’t as eager to let their guard down. But each week a mentor shows up, he or she makes that bond a little stronger. Sometimes that’s just the extra connection child needs.
To learn more about joining or donating to Newton Mentoring, people can visit newtonmentoring.com, e-mail Washington at email@example.com or call her at (678) 381-7948, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They can also visit the office, located at 2102 Clark St., inside the Chamber on Tuesdays and Thursday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.