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Baltimore organizations transform lives through mentorship | GUEST COMMENTARY

A young violinist with Orchkids practices with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 2019.
A young violinist with Orchkids practices with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 2019. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

In 2005, Masuma Islam Lonczak was a middle-school student who had arrived in Baltimore from Bangladesh three years earlier with her parents, who neither understood nor spoke English at the time. Ms. Lonczak says she “had little hope of amounting to anything”— until her teacher recommended Sisters Circle, a mentoring program just a few years old at that point.

Now, Ms. Islam Lonczak is a graduate of Goucher College, working at Johns Hopkins University in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, where she now helps guide students, much as her Sisters Circle mentor once helped her. She credits her mentor with helping her obtain a scholarship to private school, providing transportation to activities, attending her school plays and dance recitals, and tutoring her across subjects. Perhaps most valuable of all, she says the woman provided a “listening ear” and was there for Ms. Lonczak like another mother.

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Today, when our country is so divided and many young people are frustrated and angry, mentoring programs that bridge the gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, strong and weak, are more necessary than ever.

Successful mentors help their mentees reach their goals. Indeed, mentoring can be life changing, as participants in Sisters Circle and other programs, including Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood and OrchKids, clearly demonstrate.

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Heather Harvison, a local educator and businesswoman, says she created Sisters Circle in 2000 after witnessing too many girls from poor, often Black and immigrant, families fall through the cracks as they transitioned from elementary to middle and high school, facing risk factors such as teen pregnancy, school dropout, even incarceration. They lacked confidence and had no vision of a professional independent future.

To address this, Ms. Harvison partnered with Baltimore City schools, along with teachers and administrators, to identify promising sixth-grade girls who could participate in a seven-year-minimum, formal mentoring relationship. Since then, several hundred girls have participated in the program; 100% of them have been graduated from high school, and 83% from college.

Another program aiming to transform lives in the city is OrchKids, which was begun in 2008 by former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop, who partially funded the program from a $100,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant she was awarded. OrchKids started with 30 kids at one city elementary school. Today, 10 schools and 2,000 students participate in this amazingly successful in-school and after-school program.

The OrchKids staff believe music can change peoples’ lives. And it has. The participants are tutored academically, fed nutritiously and given music lessons from experts. They participate in workshops teaching life skills, including effective communication, self-esteem, empathy and teamwork. And they are encouraged to pursue their wildest dreams. Some already have.

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Asia Palmer, an original OrchKid, was in first grade when the program began in 2008. Her two brothers subsequently joined OrchKids and her mother is now on the OrchKids’ staff. The first in her family to attend college, Asia is in her third year in the Hartt Music Program at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where she is studying flute and music management.

Shawn Harlee, who participated in Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood, credits his mentor, Cameron Miles, with helping him get his life back on track after an 8-year-stint in prison.

“Mr. Miles [Shawn’s mentor] visited me regularly,” Mr. Harlee said, telling his mentee “how stupid” it was to get himself in his “situation.” Today, Mr. Harlee says he holds a steady job, has a family.

Tough love is a tool for Mr. Miles, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant, community activist, and advocate for children and youth, who started Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood in Baltimore 25 years ago. The organization’s motto: “Investing in Boys; Building Strong Men.”

Another former mentee of “the Hood,” Imhotep Simba, a Coppin graduate and former Peace Corp volunteer who is now a government contractor, reminisces about his two best mentee experiences: a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet Congressman Elijah Cummings and a tour of Princeton University.

The mentoring program, Mr. Simba adds, gave him “the soft skills to be successful in life” — a firm handshake and good eye contact, the ability to network and an appreciation of the significance of follow-up.

During COVID, all three groups have remained involved with their mentees. They provided computers to those who needed them to participate in Zoom programs — including music lessons for OrchKids; telescope lessons from Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood; and viewing a livestream performance of Center Stage’s “The Glorious World of Crowns” via Sisters Circle. The computers also allowed continued book club discussions and other activities to continue, albeit virtually. All three groups also provided meals for families in need.

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who served as a mentor, opening doors for many young people, said “our job is to keep working to open [doors], not for thanks or glory but for the sake of doing what is right.”

Mentoring, to be sure, is definitely right.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.” Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.

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