Rudy Summerville will admit he was a bit hesitant at first.
When a counselor approached him about getting involved in the Independence School District Foundation's Inspire Friends program, he wasn't so sure he had the time or wherewithal to go through with it.
Summerville finally relented and was introduced to a second grader named Dylon Brooks. Nearly 15 years later, Dylon is about to graduate from Van Horn High School, and Summerville hasn't had one regret in being able to mentor him through all of these years.
"One of the counselors there kept saying, 'I need you, I need you.' " Summerville recalled. "And I was like, 'Girl, I'm busy,' not knowing this young man. And finally she said, 'Just meet him,' and I said, 'OK.' ... I wasn't sure if I could do that and make that commitment, but my goodness! We went from infancy to a graduate, and it's been good."
Summerville is one of more than 150 Inspire Friends who meet with and mentor ISD students about 30 to 45 minutes once a week. They are paired with students who can benefit from additional one-on-one time or need role models.
Beth Whorton also serves in the program and is in her second year meeting with William Southern Elementary third grader Zion Tofa. She too doesn't have any regrets about participating.
"I had volunteered in a classroom, helping kids read and things like that. Then that teacher retired and I was looking for a new place to serve, and so they told me about this opportunity, and it's been really great," Whorton said. "... It's been a wonderful experience."
Dylon said Summerville, who plans to retire in June from his work as a community coordinator at William Chrisman High School, has made a big impact in his life. He appreciates having Summerville as a sounding board like his grandmother.
"He's like a father figure to me," said Dylon, who hopes to attend college and study music after he graduates from Van Horn in May. "I look up to him, because growing up I've never really had like a dad or a father, and it's just been me and my grandma and brother since I was like five days old. So he stepped into my life ... The first few years he was like a best friend and that built into being a father figure."
Foundation Director Amy Knipp said that is the purpose of the many volunteers who help the program. She added that the Foundation is always seeking more volunteers to help students.
“It’s a gift of time, and it makes such a difference to the kids," she said. "For that little window of time, it’s just about them. We are so thankful for the wonderful people involved with the program. They truly inspire ISD students more and more with each visit."
Dylon says he has been inspired by Summerville.
"He's smart and respectful and he's always calm," Dylon said. "There's been times when I wanted to panic in situations because I had no idea what I was going to do. He never told me anything directly, but his personality, it just gives me a message, like, 'What would Summerville do.' He'd stay calm. ... It's kind of like learning from his generation to mine, passing on a message to the next generation.
"I remember in elementary school I was kind of antisocial and I wouldn't talk to that many kids, so I was kind of a little weird kid. I was probably a little quiet (with him) at first, and he just kind of cracked the shell and opened me up a little bit."
Summerville said he also learns from Dylon.
"I've just really enjoyed the times when he would say, 'I'm just not sure which way I'm going,' as far as school or the future," Summerville said. "And I'd say, 'Well, lay things out on the table,' and he'd tell me all kinds of things, and I'd say, 'Oh, maybe I should do that.' So I'd listen to him."
Now Summerville thinks of Dylon as much more than his friend.
"It just grabbed me to say, 'Well, this young man, I need to give him something, whatever I have, and let's go with it.' " Summerville said. "And so you look at him as an infant and you look at him as a young, young preschool youth, and you look at him as a turbulent adolescent, going through puberty, to all of a sudden he's now an inspiring and sensational young man who is now getting ready to step on into other academia and worldly situations, and you look at him as a son."
Whorton also says she has benefited from her visits with Zion.
"I do think I learn from him. He has a different life, and so I learned a lot about what it's like to be a kid today – even that is different from when my kids were kids. I've learned a lot about what life is like for a kid now," she said.
She often brings him treats and has been awed by his generosity.
"Any time I take him a treat, he would always end up sharing it with his teacher and his friends," Whorton said. "He's a very giving boy, and that always blows me away."
Zion has also helped Whorton get through a tough time of dealing with cancer treatments. When she is not available because of those, she still meets with Zion in video chats through Google Hangouts.
"It gives me something to look forward to, to see his smiling face and to just be able to do our normal activity," she said. "He's an encouragement to me to get to do that, to get to talk to him each week."
She learned that Zion likes margherita pizza better than pepperoni – "Who would think a kid would like tomatoes?" – and about his exploits playing basketball.
"I've got to know a wonderful young man, and it's been really fun to have lunch with him every week and try to encourage him," Whorton said. "I think and I hope that it influences him and lets him know that he's cared about and he's important. ... I think it gives him something to look forward to every week, and it's a little different. We play games and I think it's just kind of a little fun, relaxing time for him and a break from his school day."
And that's a big reason she got involved – to help children get a good head start.
"I just have a heart to encourage kids," she said. "I think the earlier you start encouraging kids, the better chance they have of being successful and making the most of their opportunities."