Institute of Notre Dame mentorship program builds sisterhood

Morgan Williams, an only child and a new alumna at the Institute of Notre Dame, is heading to college in Delaware this fall. But she plans to stay in touch with the "little sisters" she has befriended in the past four years as a volunteer with Project K.IND, a student-run outreach program that assists economically disadvantaged young girls.

The 10-year-old program has forged a sisterhood between the all-girls Catholic high school and elementary students in its East Baltimore neighborhood. Williams stayed with the program throughout high school and served as its president her senior year.

"At first, it was an experiment to see if I liked it," she said. "Then, I fell in love. I had a little sister that I could see every week."

Kyndall Payne, 11, has three brothers and no sisters, except for Williams, she said.

"I can get away from boys and have girl time with Morgan," said Kyndall, a fifth-grader at Cardinal Shehan School in Northwood.

Williams and Kyndall met every Tuesday at Cardinal Shehan and sometimes on weekends for a movie, a shopping excursion or a visit to a local attraction. Kyndall said her grades have improved with Williams' help, and she has now set her sights on IND.

"Her family tells me IND is all she talks about," said Vanessa Williams, IND's campus minister and founder of Project K.IND. "This didn't start off as a feeder program for IND. It was just to give latchkey kids something to do. Now, we have had many of the little sisters come to our school and become big sisters. They are paying it forward. It's all one big cycle."

IND pairs its students — about 120 volunteers this year — in weekly meetings with elementary school girls at Cardinal Shehan, Mother Seton and St. James and St. John parochial schools. The project has created long-term friendships that have enhanced the younger girls' academic success and emotional outlook and strengthened the mentors' leadership abilities, said Vanessa Williams, who is not related to Morgan.

"If someone had told me this program would still be going strong after 10 years, I would not have believed it," Vanessa Williams said. "It is difficult to keep young women focused day after day, let alone year after year. But these mentors kept coming back. They truly are big sisters."

Morgan Williams worked with four little sisters this year across all three elementary schools and feels certain she has befriended each one.

"I learned about time management, and I made my little sisters my priority," she said.

Every Tuesday, the 90-minute program takes over the cafeteria at Cardinal Shehan.

"We are delighted with the program," said Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, principal at Cardinal Shehan. "These are critical years for our students, and these role models come in and interact with them. It makes me feel good to see them walk in so well prepared and so confident in their own leadership."

After a day of classes, homework still comes first, with help readily available from a mentor.

"They can help with anything," Kyndall said. "Morgan helps me with my homework first, and then we do fun stuff."

Once the books are put away, snacks and a recreational activity the mentors have planned take over.

"I love dance," Kyndall said. "And Morgan taught me to make papier-mache dolls."

Said Kaliyah Davenport, Kyndall's classmate, who is mentored by Nicole Mattuci: "We are having so much fun. I want to be a role model for other girls, just like my big sister."

Vanessa Williams would like to expand the program and is working with Archbishop Curley, an all-boys Catholic school, on a similar partnership to benefit young boys.

For Mattuci, who plans to attend Essex Community College, and Morgan Williams, who will enroll at Wesley College in Delaware, the connections will continue.

"They can't get rid of me," Williams said.

Kyndall and Kaliyah anticipate sixth grade and meeting new big sisters this fall.

"I know I will really need good grades to go to IND," Kaliyah said. "And I know my big sister will help me."

Morgan Williams said she has made sure her Project K.IND successors are prepared to continue the effort.

Both grads will work this summer as counselors at IND's TAMARIND (Take a Month around IND) camp. Their previous volunteer experience helped them land paid counseling jobs. Morgan has also secured a part-time summer job but has already told her boss she won't be available until evenings.

Kyndall and Kaliyah expect to be among the 40 campers, spending time with their big sisters.

"This program goes beyond racial and economic differences," Vanessa Williams said. "When these girls get together, they are sisters."

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