Despite a 10-year age difference and dissimilar interests, Cheryl Cucco and Angie Eckard are "friends for life." They often "hang out together" for lunch in the employees' cafeteria at Londontown Manufacturing Co.
About 18 months ago, when Ms. Eckard was a student at Westminster High, Ms. Cucco, the personnel director at the Eldersburg plant, became her adult mentor.
"She helped me stay in school and graduate," said Ms. Eckard, now a temporary shipping clerk at Londontown. "She is still helping me decide what I want to do."
Ms. Cucco said she remembers the importance "of having an adult to look up to" during her own high school years and is glad that now she can fill that role. She "proudly" attended Ms. Eckard's graduation in June and said with a smile, "We are friends for life."
The two met through the the Jobs Training Partnership Act, a project that pairs adult mentors with students in the Maryland Tomorrow's Program, which helps teen-agers at risk of dropping out of high school. With 15 employee mentors in the program, Londontown leads the county in participation. The pairs meet a few hours a month and talk on the phone weekly.
"These kids will be OK, if you just touch base with them frequently," said Rod Bourne, an equal employment opportunity specialist at Londontown, who has been in the program three years.
Esther Newman, training and employee involvement coordinator, said the mentor program is "like any relationship, it takes work but it's worth it."
While encouraging the students to stay in school, the mentors establish friendships that continue long after the students graduate.
The first student that Mr. Bourne helped came to work for Londontown after graduating from Liberty High. The young man is now in the Navy but still keeps in touch with Mr. Bourne.
Students also give the program high marks.
"She is like my best friend," said South Carroll High student Carla Combs, 17, of Ms. Newman. "She encourages me and helps me. I feel comfortable telling her my problems."
The teen-agers are staying in the classrooms and working toward their diplomas. Some, like Angie Harbin, 16, are considering college.
"I am going to stick with school and graduate," the Westminster High student said. "I would like to go on to college. I want to be a counselor now. Ruth [Lee] has helped me over the rough spots."
The program gives students a relationship with a nonauthoritarian adult, said Ms. Lee, an accounts payable manager. "We give suggestions, not directions."
Often, encouragement may be all the student needs, program officials say. "Another caring adult, another listening ear in their world provides students with a positive role model," said Pat Kennedy, business mentor coordinator with the program.
Ms. Kennedy meets biweekly at lunchtime with the mentors to offer support and to help iron out any problems.
"There are no insurmountable problems, but talking them out with other mentors helps," Ms. Lee said.
Londontown employees frequently meet their students for lunch. Last week, sharing a pizza with Carla in the school cafeteria, Ms. Newman received several requests for more mentors from Carla's friends.
"They are not asking for an unreasonable time commitment from us," said Denise Youngs, Londontown's employment coordinator. "These kids really want our help, not in place of parents, but as friends." Ms. Youngs sees her role as that of a big sister.
Patsy Will, a customer service representative, recently volunteered for the program and is training with Ms. Kennedy this week. She said she is eager to meet a student.
"We want mentors from all over the county," said Ms. Kennedy. "New students are coming on board every month.
"Londontown Company itself is most generous in providing time for the employees to participate."
"And money," Mr. Bourne said.
Londontown gives each mentor employee $100 a year to help pay for "things to do with our students," Mr. Bourne said.
Ms. Kennedy screens and trains all mentor applicants. She said time is the only commitment she asks.