Reggie Dukes knows what happens when teens drop out of school and turn to a life of crime. He sees it everyday while working at the Eckerd Academy.
So when given the opportunity to work with two freshmen — twin brothers — last school year at Central High School and mentor them as part of an effort to reach out to at-risk teens before they potentially drop out of school, Dukes wasn't sure what to expect. And the feeling from the teens was mutual, he said.
"They weren't cold toward me, but they were there to see what I was there for — whether I was there to make some sort of name for myself or really help them," Dukes said. "But over time it's gotten better and better. And I made a commitment to them that I will continue mentoring them and be there for them through high school and see them graduate and go on to college."
In hopes that adults from the community can assist at-risk teens academically and help keep them in school, Tracy Echols, executive director of Communities In Schools of Hernando County, said a mentoring program was tested last year at Central and Hernando High schools.
She said 18 students — primarily freshmen and sophomores — were mentored last year and she hopes to grow the program and eventually have at least 65 mentors participate.
The program puts volunteers with students for about an hour a week to check in on them and assist them with their school work.
But more than that, Echols said those mentors also form bonds with teens that otherwise face difficult home lives or other issues.
In some cases, she said, it is the mentor who earns students' trust to learn that they are facing homelessness, are hungry, teen parents or are facing situations at home and are having difficulties coping.
"Just by matching up some students with mentors, we saw quite an improvement in attendance and even their attitudes," Echols said. "Depending on the challenge, we tried to match up students with a mentor we thought might be able to really become engaged with them and encourage them. It seems to have worked really well."
Echols added that results of the mentoring program will be made fully available during the Fifth Annual Summit for Youth & Families event on Oct. 4.
For this school year, she said the search continues to find more mentors to team with students. The commitment isn't for the faint of heart, Echols said.
Volunteers are hard to find because there is a commitment to come to the school and meet with the student once a week. He or she also needs to be prepared to help the student with coursework.
But Dukes added that the teens are likely to be initially wary of the tutor. Echols agrees and added that for many of these teens, they've already been let down by an adult who claimed to be there for them.
"It's going to take extra effort, but it's worth it," Echols said. "It makes a big difference to these kids to have someone show up and care and remain consistent in their lives."
Those interested in volunteering in the program are asked to call Echols at (352) 277-3322 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.