Once a week the man comes to the homeless shelter and takes the boy fishing.
They may catch a few one week, and nothing the next. But there’s much more going on here than casting a line and pulling in a bass or a bluegill.
They talk, they have something to eat, and gradually trust builds and a relationship develops. The boy is praised and encouraged by this man, a mentor with the Stepping Stones program of the Mental Health Association of Arizona. And the boy may develop new skills, see new things or find a new way to solve an old problem.
And when he goes home, he announces that he is the luckiest boy at the shelter.
Outings like this happen every day, between East Valley grown-ups and the children they mentor.
Some of the mentoring is formal, as in the Stepping Stones program, which pairs adults with young people from 10 Valley homeless shelters, and dozens of others run by local schools, community centers, Big Brothers Big Sisters, OASIS and various groups. Some mentoring is informal, as in siblings or cousins, teachers and their students, ministers and their parishioners.
That mentoring works should be a no -brainer. Research continues to show that a child is more likely to be successful with the consistent support of caring adults.
"Everybody could use a mentor," said Stepping Stones program coordinator Debbie Wuellner. "But children who are at high risk can show the most changes. It takes a relationship to make a difference in their life."
And yet mentoring programs are some of the hardest to keep alive. The Arizona Mentoring Partnership, launched in September to coordinate efforts and recruit mentors, folded after just eight months for lack of funding.
"I had a lot of time on my hands. I love kids. And I thought that it would be a rewarding thing to do," said Mary Jo Conway, a Stepping Stones mentor from Chandler. She gets together with 13-yearold Ashley at least once a week for movies, in-line skating or whatever comes up.
Like most programs, Stepping Stones has a waiting list of children who need dependable grown-ups, particularly male mentors. Most of Wuellner’s 45 families are single moms with several kids, and the boys are sorely in need of a solid male role model. There is a one-year commitment, some training and a background check. Call Wuellner at (480) 994-4407 or e-mail dwuellner@ mhaarizona.org to learn more.
Mentoring programs also have been used successfully in other states for teens who are "aging out" of the foster care system, where an adult is matched with a youth who now has to make it on his own. Arizona child welfare officials are investigating how it might work here.
There are subtle messages sent by mentors, perhaps overshadowed for the time being by a trip to Sunsplash or "Shrek 2."
In this mentor, the child has a living, breathing example of community activism, volunteerism and concern for others.
"To me, it’s one of the most valuable things anybody could do to help their community," said Christina Risley-Curtiss, an Arizona State University associate professor of social work and child welfare consultant. "It can have a really, really powerful impact."