“They were living in a single wide with a Hispanic family with six kids. That’s ten people in a single wide! Imagine.”

The 30-year old man who said this to me lived in a double wide with his wife, three kids, one dog, three cats, and two rats…pet rats.  I’ll never forget the first time I met the rats.

I had just arrived at the double wide to visit the boy I had mentored for the previous two years and who was now living in this mobile home under foster care.  I said hello to the boy, now thirteen, his foster parents, two other foster children—both handicapped (the “they” referred to above)—the dog, and the three cats. Still trying to assimilate this familial scene, I was then asked if I would like to meet the final two members of the household—an introduction that would require a trip to the bathroom. With caution bordering trepidation, I followed the 30-year old man into the bathroom where I was instructed to look into the tub. There I came face-to-face with two unsettlingly large rodents…creatures with which I felt no sense of bonding and had previously seen only in the wild inner city, where I gave them wide (double or triple wide, if possible) berth.

“They’re happiest when they have a friend to play with,” the 30-year old said. “That’s why two,” he continued as he bent over the tub, picked up Wilbur (not his real name) and placed him on his shoulder, where the long-nosed, whiskered rodent perched like Long John Silver’s parrot, Captain Flint.

I was on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in what might most accurately, and most charitably, be termed an upscale trailer park, and I could not have been happier for the thirteen-year old boy.

When I first met the boy, two years earlier, he was a ward of the state living at a facility outside Baltimore specializing in the treatment of children with emotional and behavioral problems stemming from physical and/or sexual abuse. On the day he had arrived at that facility, the boy’s worldly belongings fit in a brown paper bag most commonly associated with a light lunch. He had also brought with him huge loads of anger and distrust, and a substantial need for medication to control his potential for violence.  Not surprising, considering the boy’s early life.

Jake (not the boy’s real name) was born of a teenage mother with little education and a perspective framed by life in a small rural town that city people blithely looped past on their way to the beach. The town was invisible and insular—a place where pretty teenage girls all too quickly became pregnant teenage girls who married boys driven by lust masquerading as love. Boys being boys and lust being lust, these newly minted husbands and fathers quickly moved on, leaving in their wake vulnerable women and abused children, often thanks to the “next man up.”

In Jake’s case, fatherly abandonment struck before Jake was two…a virtual carbon copy of the pattern previously established by the “father” of Jake’s older stepsister. Meanwhile, Jake’s mother, not yet twenty-one years old and sinking fast into the netherworld of substance abuse and relationship hell, struggled to cope with Jake and his sister with a little help from Jake’s grandparents.

Despite her issues, Jake absolutely adored his mother and was very close to his grandfather as well. Together, this family unit, supplemented along the way with a “next man up stepfather,” somehow muddled through a few hardscrabble years that saw Jake enter the first grade. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the end of “normal” for him.

Before Jake was seven, his grandfather—a rough-hewn man who loved smoking, drinking, fishing, and little Jake—died of emphysema. Less than a year later, Jake’s grandmother, not yet fifty, collapsed on the bathroom floor one morning and died that night of a massive aneurysm. Not six months later, Jake’s mother was rushed to the local hospital with bleeding problems that were misdiagnosed, improperly medicated and ultimately became the focus of a wrongful death suit. Jake and his stepsister were suddenly in the care of a “stepfather-in-name-only.” They were alone, their world about to go from tough to terrifying.

The stepfather’s interest in a nine-year old boy and a thirteen-year old girl was orgasmic, literally. For much of the next year, Jake’s sister was routinely sexually abused, both children were mentally tortured, and Jake was otherwise ignored. State welfare services did eventually step in and remove the children from that frying pan, placing them instead into the firestorm of an aunt and uncle whose idea of childcare ranged from open-handed face slapping to tight-fisted body shots. Jake’s sister soon ran away, leaving Jake as his uncle’s sole sparring partner. Again, social services intervened and Jake was placed with his only remaining “family” member –a harmless, if mentally deficient, aunt. That did not go well, as Jake now nearing eleven, began to assert his own sense of retribution.

Soon, and for the very first time in his life, Jake was removed from his eastern shore “comfort zone” and placed in one of the state’s courts-of-last-resort, the facility outside Baltimore, where he was the one “country boy” in a sea of street-wise city kids with similar, or worse, stories. It was there that Jake and I first met.

I became a mentor thanks to the NFL and the premature end of my previous life as an international advertising executive. The latter afforded me time, and the former, motivation. A friend of mine had invited me to attend the NFL’s annual Courage Awards banquet, always held in Baltimore in honor of Ed Block, a former Baltimore Colts trainer who had dedicated himself to improving the lives of children. One of that evening’s speakers told of a visit, earlier that day, that the 32 Courage Award recipients had made to a facility for abused children. As I listened to the speaker describe the terrible life situations of these kids, I reflected on my own early years and how blessed, in contrast, my childhood had been. Loving family, a stable home, the virtual absence of trauma, and my beloved Baltimore Colts. I determined, that night, to visit the facility and see how I could help.

Several months later, after an exhaustive series of preparatory orientations about the role of a one-to-one mentor (and after a perhaps-too-perfunctory background check), I was ready to meet the young boy who would be in my charge. Awaiting Jake’s arrival to the room in which I sat with the facility’s Volunteer Coordinator and Jake’s therapist, I’m not sure what kind of damaged child I expected to see. But the 11-year old who entered—a buzz-cut, round-faced, tee-shirted, somewhat weathered boy—flashed me back instead to the pre-teen “country boys” in the movie, Stand By Me. That being one of my favorite films, and movie dialogue being one of my passions, my mind immediately replayed the film’s closing line, delivered voice-over by the narrator/writer: “I never had any friends later like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” I always identified with that line…and this one about being a boy of that age:

For some, it’s the last taste of innocence and the first real taste of life. But for everyone, it’s the time that memories are made of.

What kind of memories, I wondered, would young Jake, just five months shy of his own twelfth birthday, have?  Could the two of us together at least offset some of the pain of his past?

The answer came soon enough, from Jake himself, when the volunteer coordinator asked the boy if he knew what a “mentor” was. Without hesitation, Jake instinctively responded, “Someone to have fun with.” That works for me, I thought. And so we began.

Over the months that followed, I met with Jake at least twice each week—once within the residential unit of the facility and, on weekends, out-and-about Baltimore. Over the course of the next year, we did all the things twelve-year olds love, but Jake had never experienced…Ravens and Orioles games, bike riding on the old NCR Trail, stomach-churning rides at the State Fair, and Jake’s first ever train ride to rubberneck our way around D.C. We shot pool, went bowling, and saw more than our share of “action” movies. We also exposed one another to bits of culture; I took him to Cirque de Soleil and the Baltimore Museum of Art (where we touched stuff we weren’t supposed to, narrowly avoiding expulsion), while Jake schooled me about NASCAR and regaled me with his uncanny knowledge of country music. The boy could name the song and singer almost as fast as the radio sounded the first guitar chord.

Two things were most apparent with Jake early on. One, he had very little stamina for physical activity, thanks to the considerable amount of medication he required daily. And two, he loved to eat and play video games. Fortunately, we found the perfect solution to all of that in the ESPN Zone at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “A perfect day out” for Jake would see he and I sitting in the Zone’s front row super recliners, our feet up, watching a Sunday afternoon baseball game on the enormous main screen (felt like we were sitting on the pitcher’s shoulder), Jake eating a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich with a side of cheese fries (Hey, I never claimed to be a nutritionist!), followed by an hour upstairs in the video game room…all topped off with a stop at the supermarket where, for $5, Jake could purchase five packs of his beloved Ramen Noodles for his evening snacks at the facility that week.

To “Noodles,” my nickname for Jake, fun was the end game. To me, it was the means to build a relationship of comfort and trust that would allow this young boy to open up about his feelings and fears from the past, his hopes and dreams for the future, and to do it naturally. Interestingly, it worked both ways—each of us opening up to bridge a nearly fifty-year age gap.

Those were, indeed, good days, albeit they always ended with Jake’s return to King Unit, where he lived with twenty-some other boys, ranging in age from nine to twelve, three to a room, with regimentation of routine, but unpredictability of interaction, the rule.  I worried for Jake in those moments, wondering what would be next for him. I knew he could no longer live there once he turned thirteen. Would he be sent to a group home, or a foster home? Would he be able to handle either? Would either be able to handle him? More pointedly, would he find love and stability?

After several fits and starts over a period of many months, the answer to all of those questions was finally found in the double wide where I now stood greeting a large rodent sitting on the shoulder of a large man, who looked for all the world like he could indeed be Jake’s birth father (the resemblance was uncanny), and the man’s equally substantial wife, who unquestionably ruled the roost. Meeting her, in particular, harked me back to my own childhood and the strong, no nonsense “moms” who could handle any challenge, made clear what was and was not appropriate behavior, were capable of realigning the wayward with an arch of an eyebrow, and would fight to the death if anyone messed with their kids. Jake was home.

The next few years saw Jake go from foster child to adopted son…from ward of the state to high school student…from hopeless to hopeful. Throughout, Jake and I (now separated by over a hundred miles) got together several times each year and always found a way to take in a Ravens game together. We were just about to do that again when I received a call from Jake’s mother. “Jake got in some trouble at school this week,” she said. “They said he tried to force himself on a girl and became violent with the teacher who confronted him about it. The police got involved.”

Here was a scenario I had feared. Despite the improvement in Jake’s home life and the strength of his new parental influences, Jake remained socially awkward and prone to seemingly uncontrollable eruptions of anger and bad judgment. He also had some rather disquieting anxiety ticks, like absent-mindedly scratching at his arms and face, that made him just plain weird in the eyes of his school peers. High school’s hard enough on the “normal.”

Jake’s clumsy thrusting of himself on “his girlfriend” and his aggressiveness toward the teacher who tried to intervene resulted in his return to institutional life—committed to a psychiatric facility in Delaware for kids with behavioral problems. This time, however, he was not alone. His adoptive parents were determined to bring him “home” and, after a couple months, they did. His head (and perhaps more to the point, his meds) adjusted, Jake returned to school and, a year later, he graduated.

My wife and I were honored to attend Jake’s high school commencement as the invited guests of his proud parents, who had by now adopted another child, an adorable eight-year old girl of mixed race with severe communication problems. They were also “temporarily” housing a three-year old boy with the Duchenne muscular disorder, and would soon further supplement their home by fostering three abandoned siblings—a seven-year old autistic girl and her five-year old twin brothers, all of whom had been exposed to lead poisoning. (If you wonder where Jake’s adoptive parents get the strength, I do too.)

As I sat in the high school auditorium that night and watched Jake walk across the stage to receive his acknowledgement, I thought about all that this still very young boy had been through—the painful loss of loved ones, the horrid abuse of supposed guardians, the loneliness of institutional life, the rediscovery of parental love and support, and now his place of importance as big brother to others whose needs were great. It made me proud to realize that, through it all, Jake had never given up on himself. And it made me happy to have played my own very small part in his story.

I have no illusions that Jake’s troubles are over. He’ll carry the burden of his experiences with him for the rest of his life. But he’ll also carry with him the realization of what it is to grow up. What it is to not give up. And, most importantly, what it is to be loved and supported.

As for me, mentoring Jake was one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences of my life…and instigated me to find ways to touch more lives.

These days, I “mentor” in a very different environment…working with inner city teens who have failed in, and been failed by, the public school system, and whose childhood family experiences have much in common with Jake’s. These “disadvantaged youth” now attend a unique educational oasis that most would label an “alternative school,” though that label does no justice to the special learning and mentoring environment that it is. They put in ten-hour days, four days a week, trying to catch up to where their public educations left off (or, more accurately, gave up on them). Each day, they arrive at a “one room schoolhouse,” this one situated not on the fruited plains of yore, but in a Baltimore neighborhood heavy with drugs, low income, and lower expectations, where they are met by a teacher whose singular devotion to his students is as extraordinary as Jake’s parents devotion to caring for the neediest among us.

At first glance, one would be inclined to judge this group of about a dozen 14 to 17-year olds as destined to continue the cycle of abuse, abandonment, and failure that they themselves know so well. But up close, helping them one-on-one to give “written voice” to their feelings and futures, I see the determination of many to break the cycle. I see glimmers of self-belief and self-confidence. I see kids who, like Jake, have not given up on themselves. And I feel damn good to play a very small part in their hopefulness.




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