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Northwestern High mentor program helps students, residents bridge cultures and form friendships

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sean Williams arrives for his graduation from Baltimore's Northwestern High School with his blue commencement robe in his arms and jingly white beads in his braids. He is a little nervous, he says; he never graduated from anything before.

A few minutes later, a middle-age college professor bounds up to the school, camera in hand. It is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and normally, Andy Miller would be at temple. But not today.

Miller -- one of nearly 20 people to participate in a program linking members of his synagogue to Northwestern students -- mentored Williams the past four years. "This is too important to miss," he says, before ducking inside.

Chizuk Amuno Congregation and Northwestern are only 2 miles apart, but the county line and a host of racial, religious and other differences separate them. A large Jewish community lives near the school, yet the student body is almost entirely African-American. Most Chizuk Amuno members send their children to private schools or Baltimore County public schools.

"The high school is in the middle of our community, but I had no connection to it," said Elliot King, one of the mentors. "I would just drive by it, back and forth."

A commitment to community service led a small group of Chizuk Amuno congregants to band together four years ago. They brainstormed. They talked about mentoring and the school they knew little about other than its reputation for low test scores and low graduation rates. The Northwestern Chizuk Amuno Alliance was born.

Initially, there was some trepidation, some awkwardness. Teenagers, being teenagers, could be unreliable about returning phone calls and keeping appointments. Some matches never worked and, in a few cases, trust came haltingly.

But bit by bit, stubbornness and faith prevailed. Preconceptions unraveled. Cautious greetings turned into hugs. Celebrations and meals were shared. Difficulties were faced together.

Some pairs spent time shopping, ice skating and hiking. Others went to sporting events, concerts and museums. The mentors, a group that includes a lawyer, a psychologist and a theater producer, helped students study for the SATs and fill out college applications. They connected their young charges to after-school jobs and showed up on prom night to take pictures.

It turns out that kids are kids, mentors said. People are people, students said.

"I learned some things about people from different cultures and backgrounds, and how they are not that different from us and how much you can learn from each other," said Cyndie Ann Cupid, who graduated third in her class and plans to attend Towson University in the fall.

"They're not just mentors," she said of David and Debbie Roffman. "They've become my friends. They're like family."

The support, she and the Roffmans discovered, didn't run in one direction. When Debbie Roffman's brother died, Cupid insisted on visiting her during the Jewish period of mourning. She held her mentor's hand during services.

"You'd think a high school kid would be caught up in her own everyday life and activities," said David Roffman, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. "But that's how close we got to be."

King, who teaches communications at Loyola College, often took Sean Griffin to basketball games and movies, but he was always stressing academics. Griffin is a bright but sometimes indifferent student, as King discovered when he flunked four classes one semester.

King snapped into action, meeting Griffin at least once a week. Sometimes he simply sat with him in a Dunkin' Donuts near school while Griffin did his homework. That semester, Griffin made the honor roll.

King helped Griffin sign up for night classes to make up work. And he was there when Griffin had to be rushed to the hospital after putting his fist through a window. While Griffin waited for the doctor, they went over study sheets for a chemistry final.

"He's like a second father to me," Griffin said.

Griffin had to take his final exams late and wasn't permitted to graduate with his classmates. But he is on course to pick up a diploma this month and hopes to attend community college.

Sean Williams always had a diploma in sight, but complications frequently cropped up on the way. Often reluctant to go home, he had 100 percent attendance at the program's group activities. "My family is too crazy," said Williams, who bounced among relatives' homes throughout high school.

Sometimes Williams would call Miller for a lift when he was stranded, and he called when he needed his wisdom teeth removed but didn't have insurance to cover the procedure. Miller, a geography and environmental systems professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reached the program administrator who dug up some funds.

Another time, Williams was arrested after an altercation at the Motor Vehicle Administration, where he had gone to take a driver's test. Miller arranged for a pro bono lawyer and showed up at the court date. The case, which Miller described as "bogus," was dismissed.

Williams, who will attend Anne Arundel Community College in the fall, dreams of opening a day-care center, writing plays and becoming a country singer. In part because he is gay, trust doesn't come easily for him, Williams said. But Miller stood by and accepted him. "That was more than enough," Williams said.

Kathy Shapiro thinks of Michael Briggs as a "mensch," Yiddish for an unfailingly decent guy. Briggs is big -- big enough to scoop up her young children and be a menace on a football field -- but gentle. "He's one of the good souls," she said.

Unlike many of the students in the program, Briggs was raised by both of his parents. But he is one of 11 siblings, and his parent's financial resources and time are stretched thin.

That's where Kathy and Sandy Shapiro came in. Sandy Shapiro gave Briggs a part-time job at his scrap metal business, and the couple often spent Sundays with him. They ate meals together, and shuttled between his games and practices and their children's. Their kids, 7 and 8, adore the teenager.

"Our kids have really been affected, and I've been affected by who he is becoming," Kathy Shapiro said. "It reminds you of your own strengths and what is possible."

The synagogue raised $192,00 for the four-year program from several charitable foundations. Enough money is left to offer each student up to $5,000 for tuition or other college costs.

Many of the pairs continue to meet. Mentors are helping students with complicated school financial forms, and friendship, after all, is friendship.

The morning of the graduation, Sandy Shapiro and Andy Miller sit together in the auditorium in matching khaki pants, light blue shirts and ties. They clap, and Miller tries to take pictures as the processional music swells and the students file onto the stage.

Eighteen of the 20 students who started in the mentorship program made it to the end of high school. Most have college plans.

"I just can't give up now. I've come too far from where I started from," three students sing. Each time they hit the chorus, the audience cheers.

The crowd cheers more when the speaker tells students, "All things are yours." And they roar when the last of graduates' names is called. On stage, students dance and hoot, some waving their diplomas over their heads.

Afterward, amid the jumble of balloons and exuberant families in the hallway, Miller finds Williams and Shapiro finds Briggs. They embrace and pose for photographs, all smiling broadly.

"It felt good to have him here because he's a big part of my life," Briggs says. "I don't know what I would have done if I didn't meet him. It was one of the best experiences of my life."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

A photo caption with Saturday's article about a mentorship program at the Chizuk Amuno Congregation incorrectly described Adam Donaldson. Donaldson, the project coordinator, is not a member of the synagogue.The Sun regrets the errors.
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