Sitting there in a black cocktail dress, pearls and high heels, her chestnut hair cascading around her shoulders, Sarah Hemminger is an attractive yet curious figure. Listening to her speak to a prominent group of city leaders, it's hard to believe that this woman with the Hoosier smile is all that she says she is - doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, founder of a nonprofit mentoring program, den mother to 31 of Baltimore's most challenged teens. But she is all that, and at 28, her accomplishments should impress any astute CEO, strategic community organizer and impassioned do-gooder.
The rest of us should be humbled by her relentless pursuit of a class of kids that others would have given up on.
Sarah, her financial adviser husband Ryan and their "families" of volunteers (fellow students in Johns Hopkins' medical and graduate schools) have shepherded 15 Dunbar High School students successfully through graduation and into colleges. To name a few, Trinity University; Purdue University; University of Maryland, Eastern Shore; Bowdoin College; Wesley College in Delaware; and Frostburg State. (Though the kids received 120 acceptances.)
All but two are in their sophomore year; 16 more are coming along right behind them.
Ms. Hemminger and her band of mind-bending mentors got this far with heart, conviction and grit. Grit is an old-fashioned word, but that's what it takes to negotiate the messy circumstances of these teenagers' lives. Drug-addicted parents. Homelessness. Imprisoned fathers. Sexual abuse. Truancy. Gangs. Mental illness.
When she interviewed for a spot in Hopkins' graduate program in biomedical engineering, the department chairman, Dr. Murray Sachs, asked the nervous applicant about ... triple sow-cows. The former high school figure skater didn't try and explain the tricky move. She just got up and showed him: twirling and jumping in his office. That's her can-do, will-do spirit.
Not one of the students in Ms. Hemminger's Incentive Mentoring Program has dropped out. As she tells them: "We are the most hard-core gang you will ever come into contact with, because once you're in, we never let you out."
That commitment goes beyond tutoring them, monitoring their schoolwork or helping them apply for college. It means driving a kid to school every morning to make sure he arrives. Getting treatment for a drug-addicted parent. Attending a swim meet or football game. Rehabbing the first floor of a dilapidated rowhouse to bring some order to a student's fractured family life. Hosting a skating party, finding day care for younger siblings or paying a parent to skip a few days of work to shadow an errant son in school - and embarrass him into staying there.
It may mean a new address for a teenager caught up in a street gang or a do-not-get-out-of-jail pass for a student who needs to learn that working both sides of the street may just kill him.
Ms. Hemminger has overseen all of that since she first staked out the principal's office at Dunbar High School. It took her a couple of days to catch up with Roger Shaw, then the hands-on head of the Dunbar family. An intensive mentoring program appealed to him for the extra hand it could offer students with promise, but tough home lives. And, like a family, staff and mentors would pull together for the benefit of each child.
Her idea for the project came from the example of five teachers who salvaged her husband's high school years and changed his life.
A car accident had left Ryan Hemminger's mother addicted to pain killers, a habit that drew her deeper into the drug world until she began selling any drug she could to make her way. Ryan's life turned upside-down. He was failing his freshmen classes until these Indiana teachers intervened. They tutored him, provided food for the family, helped get him through school. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Sarah wanted to similarly parent Dunbar's Ryans.
What began in fall 2004 with the help of a few close friends, encouragement and some financial support from her dean has grown to a crew of 242 volunteers who, in small groups, collectively mentor individual students. The intensive attention is partly why the program succeeds and, with Dunbar's support, its kids have thrived. There's the occasional dose of tough love, but at its core, it's about unconditional love.
For the first three years, the focus was on bonding with the kids. Only later did she solicit funds and formalize her venture as a nonprofit organization. Now, the group has a budget of not very much, $45,000, most of which goes for food (the quickest way to a teen's heart), college application fees, scholarship aid and family needs.
All the while, she has been busy in her lab at Hopkins, figuring out how the human body's motor system learns what it learns and retains it. Her research involves "multiple paths of learning," that's the simplest way to explain it. "First and foremost, she wants to be seen as a scientist among her peers," says her adviser, Dr. Reza Shadmehr. "On top of that, she is trying to change the world."
It's not unusual to find one of her students doing his homework in the lab. Her colleagues haven't complained, and she has never heard the "Sarah, either you want to be a scientist or you don't" speech. That's because, her advisers say, she's that smart and that energetic.
She's also soft-spoken and articulate and, she'd be the first to tell you, no saint.
Some kids refer to her as their second mom or their white mom, but parents are integral to her work, and their decisions rule. "If we undermine the parent's authority, then there's zero respect for the fact that there is a parent in the house," Sarah says. "A drug addict can give good advice. We want the kids to understand how to negotiate a situation, how to get what you need but get what your parent has to offer. Work within the confines, that's life. You have to learn to deal with it."
She grew up in a middle-class home; her father (a former hippie from Woodstock) was a plumber, her mother stayed home with the four kids. They lived among a Christian church group in Indianapolis that at one point shunned the family: "I know what rejection feels like, where you are completely rejected. That has given me a sense of compassion for these kids."
The outsider is now on the inside. Ms. Hemminger was getting involved in kids' lives in Baltimore just as that one-time community organizer from the South Side of Chicago was heading to the U.S. Senate. She has lived the spirit of volunteerism and service that President Barack Obama hopes to inspire in her peers.
Many of the people listening to her talk on a recent winter night were impressed. Several wanted to know how the program could be replicated and reach many more students. It's a question you would expect from educators, philanthropists and civic leaders who have been involved for decades in city life and remain eager to improve Baltimore's communal life.
The answer lies in finding someone who can recruit graduate students and young professionals with drive and commitment, achievers willing to be available and on call for kids who may be wary of them at first, volunteers with follow-through who aren't easily discouraged. Then you need someone to organize and inspire and motivate them. You need 10 more Sarah Hemmingers. At the very least.