Earlier this month, 15-year-old Gabriel Allen played the best series of his life, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance and support of his mentor, Jim Wilkin.
Wilkin and Allen have met weekly for the past two years, with Wilkin traveling to Eloy every Friday to pick up Allen and drive him back to Tucson for an afternoon of fun.
Sometimes the couple will hike, weather permitting, and other times they’ll bike to work at Wilkin’s or go bowling, which Wilkin said they’ve only done a handful of times.
But whatever they do together, it’s time Allen could just be a kid and not worry about any problems he might have at home.
Wilkin and Allen were matched by Mentoring Tucson’s Kids, a faith-based nonprofit in southern Arizona that matches children and teens with certain risk factors with an adult friend who can serve as a guide and role model.
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Filling a void in a child’s life
Mentoring Tucson’s Kids works with more than 25 partner agencies to find mentees and mentors, including Amphitheater and Tucson Unified School Districts, Arizona Department of Children’s Services, Oro Valley Chambers of Commerce and de Marana, University of Arizona, Pima Community College, La Frontera and others.
Mentors fill a gap and help enrich the lives of many children growing up in an environment with few resources, said Executive Director Mary McGuire.
The organization began in 1995 when it was created by Don McNeil as One on One Partners. One on One Partners later became One on One Mentoring, and in 2006 McNeil connected with Mentor Kids USA of Phoenix to help start a faith-based program in Tucson.
In January 2019, McNeil retired as executive director of both organizations, passing the torch to McGuire. In 2021, the board decided to consolidate the programs into one, with Mentoring Tucson’s Kids remaining.
Children who participate in the program face risk factors in their lives, including coming from a single parent or group home; having a relative in jail or jail or being contacted by the police or court; evidence of substance use problems; struggling or having dropped out of school; living below the poverty line; have a history of physical, emotional or sexual abuse; or struggling with low self-esteem, anxiety or depression.
Studies show that young adults with a mentor are 55% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 130% more likely to hold leadership positions, according to Mentora nonprofit advocate and resource for mentoring in the United States.
The Mentor website states that young adults who face a lack of opportunity but have a mentor are 55% more likely to go to college than those without a mentor. Additionally, studies show that children with a mentor are 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27% less likely to start drinking, according to Mentor.
“Now the need is even greater, with all the kids have navigated over the past two years with COVID and all the changes,” McGuire said.
The program has pivoted a bit during lockdown to accommodate mentors or mentees who haven’t been able to meet in person, but the big thing about one-on-one mentoring, McGuire said, is the ability to social distance.
“Tucson might be a little hot, but there’s a lot you can do outside and social distancing,” she said.
Now that the pandemic is waning or becoming an accepted part of daily life, the group is working to let schools and other community groups and providers know that they are here and ready to support children through mentorship.
References or direct applications
Currently, Mentoring Tucson’s Kids is overseeing 15 games, which McGuire says is down, but several more are in the works. The program has lost a handful of volunteers since the start of the pandemic, due to relocation or health issues, and is working to rebuild its strength.
“We are always recruiting mentors,” McGuire said. “Our greatest need continues to be mentorship and funding.”
Mentors and mentees are matched based on personality, interests, and geographic location whenever possible.
“We really want to remove the barriers that prevent them from coming together,” McGuire said.
Children enter the program through referrals or direct applications on the website. Mentors can also apply online and are subject to background and reference checks, fingerprint clearance through the Arizona Department of Public Safety, interview, and training.
Each month, representatives from various Tucson organizations meet to talk about resources and referrals, and in January the program launched a youth advisory group with children in the program who will give direct feedback.
And while organizers require mentors to have some affiliation with Christianity or Catholicism, the children and families they work with can be from any religion.
“We work with kids from all walks of life,” McGuire said, adding there’s no religious component to the mentorship.
Build a connection
Allen and Wilkin were hard to miss at Fiesta Lanes this Friday afternoon, with Allen sporting a cowboy hat, shiny leather boots and a silver and bronze belt buckle featuring an ox head.
Allen had three strikes in the pair’s three games and even took the time to offer Wilkin – who was bowling with his non-dominant arm due to impending shoulder surgery – advice on how to way to improve his game.
Wilkin volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Washington State, and says his wife was always a big supporter of what turned out to be his passion.
It was clear from their relationship that Wilkin and Allen spent a lot of time together, as Allen joked about making a bet for the third and final win-win match of the day and Wilkin called it more d once “Tex .”
Allen was raised by his grandmother, so Wilkin, who retired to Tucson, said he found it ironic that Allen was paired with a mentor old enough to be his grandfather. Despite the age difference, the two have no shortage of conversation starters, Wilkin said.
“The first two outings he was pretty calm,” Wilkin said. “But sometimes just being in the vehicle for a while allows for a conversation. I have a captive audience. So little by little we built that connection.”
When it comes to the kids he’s tutored, it’s more about quality than quantity, Wilkin said. “I’m not interested in how many people I’ve worked with,” he said. “I’m interested in how many people I can actually reach.”
In addition to their weekly get-togethers, Allen and Wilkin sometimes attend monthly Mentoring Tucson’s Kids get-togethers, but Wilkin said Allen is now at the age where it isn’t as cool to hang out with the other kids.
“I raised two very strong-willed girls, so I know when not to fight,” Wilkin said, after Allen quickly vetoed April’s monthly healthy eating event.
And while learning about healthy eating isn’t on Allen’s to-do list, Wilkin said he’s very open to trying new things.
As they left Fiesta Lanes that day, making their way to Eegee before heading back to Eloy, Allen leaned into the fun he had had, touching Wilkin’s arm as they crossed the parking lot to their truck.
“Now we have to do it more often,” Allen said.
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 520-573-4191 or [email protected] On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt