MORE THAN A BUDDY
STAR Program Employs Mentors To Give 24-Hour Guidance To At-Risk Youths, And The Results So Far Have Been Promising
January 14, 2007
By MATT BURGARD, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
Tracey Taylor is a professional parent.
Like any good father, he fills his days keeping after his kids, making sure they're getting dressed and going to school, letting them know when they've disappointed him and encouraging them when they do well.
The only catch is that the kids under his watch aren't his - biologically or legally, at least.
Instead, the young adults that Taylor monitors as a full-time mentor are considered some of the most at-risk kids in Hartford. They're the kind of kids who could easily find themselves living on the street, contributing to the culture of drugs and guns that has claimed many young lives in recent years.
Taylor works for STAR Mentoring Services, a 5-year-old program whose goal is to give troubled young people the kind of constant attention that most volunteer-based mentoring programs cannot afford to provide. The STAR program employs 29 mentors, three of whom work full time for the program, with the rest working part time while holding down other jobs.
The program is gender-specific, so male mentors work with boys and female mentors work with girls. One of the two boys that Taylor is now mentoring is 13-year-old Michael Flores, a good-hearted yet sensitive young man whose learning disabilities often contribute to eruptions of anger and frustration.
On one recent school day, Taylor dropped by Michael's eighth-grade class at the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy to see if he was keeping up with his studies - only to find the boy walking angrily from the classroom.
Instead of answering a question from his teacher, Michael had stood up in class and caused a disruption - a standard tactic of his whenever he is afraid of being made to look ignorant in front of his peers, Taylor said. His teacher at the academy, a school for the city's most behaviorally challenging children, had ordered Michael to go to the principal's office just as Taylor showed up.
Taylor, an athletic man with a booming voice, leaned over Michael as his teacher stood in front of the classroom, hoping the young man would listen to his mentor.
"What are you doing, Mike? I thought we had an understanding you wouldn't disrupt the classes," Taylor said, his hand resting firmly on Michael's shoulder.
"It wasn't my fault," Michael replied sullenly, trying to look away. Yet Michael, obviously pleased with the attention, couldn't help a slight smile from creeping over his face as Taylor pressed him to explain his behavior.
"Some other kid said something, and I said something back and got in trouble," he said.
Later, Michael would be in trouble again when he swore at a teacher during class, prompting Taylor to meet with Michael and the teacher in the principal's office. The meeting ended after Michael apologized and promised to try harder to keep his anger in check.
That night, Taylor drove to Michael's home in the city's South End to visit with his mother, Linda Feliciano, a single full-time nurse who said Taylor has made a huge difference in her son's life.
"He needed a man in his life to give him guidance," she said. "Now he has someone to talk to and drive him to do the right thing."
As she spoke, Michael smiled broadly as Taylor asked him to show him around the family's apartment. The two then drove to Taylor's home in Bloomfield, where Michael would eat dinner with Taylor and Taylor's wife and three children, then finish his homework.
"He tells me I can do good," Michael said when asked about his relationship with Taylor. "I know I can do good, too."
If one of his kids finds himself with no place to live - as recently happened when one young man was removed from his family because of allegations of abuse - Taylor will take him into his home as a foster parent.
"Most of these kids, all they need is a little attention, a little love and a little kick in the butt," said Taylor, 43, a Hartford native who graduated from Bloomfield High School before dropping out of college and turning to a life of hustling in the streets. Now a deacon at his Bloomfield church, Taylor said he managed to turn his life around with the help of an older friend who encouraged him to seek a spiritual calling.
Taylor said his background gives him an advantage when dealing with the teenage boys in his care.
"I know all the angles," he said. "I know what they're going through, and I know how to talk to them. That's why they pay attention to me."
The program was created in 2002 by Fay Evans, a former social worker with a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for helping turn around the lives of at-risk kids. Evans oversees all the mentors, but she acts as a surrogate mother to all the kids, getting to know each of them as if they were her own.
"Miss Fay," as she is known, goes to great lengths to make an impact on the 72 kids that now take part in the program - all of them referred to her by the state Department of Children and Families.
The kids, who range in age from 8 to 17, are considered at risk because of a wide range of behavioral or learning disabilities or because they come from neglectful backgrounds.
In the program's homey offices on Gillett Street, Evans' voice can often be heard as she talks to one of the kids in her care. She sings to them, shouts at them, laughs with them, begs them and - above all - challenges them to imagine a better life for themselves.
She can be equally persuasive with the corporations and other private entities that have allowed her program to grow through donations, including one company that recently donated a set of computers so the kids could get their homework done.
The idea, Evans said, is to get the kids to realize that it's possible for them to succeed, no matter what their background.
Michael Williams, the director of the DCF's Hartford area office, said the STAR Mentoring program has proven effective in helping troubled kids turn their lives around. He said the program is especially effective because the mentors are familiar with the cultural background of the kids they serve.
"They know firsthand what these kids are going through, what they're dealing with," said Williams, who added DCF would like more people to take part in mentoring programs like STAR. "That makes it possible to get good results, which they do."