The first time we went out, I came to the apartment where he was living with his mother,” Joe Sherman, an attorney and mentor in the Mentoring Youth Program at the Bergen Volunteer Center, reminisced. “At the time, he was this little pipsqueak. He saw me and ran into his room. His mother suggested I go talk to him, so I went in to see him, and he was curled around the bed. I said to him, “Are you ready to go?” even though he clearly wasn’t—he didn’t even have socks or shoes on. And of course, he said “no.” So I said “Are you not ready to go ‘cause you’re a little scared right now?” and he said yes. In response, I put my hand out and said, “So am I, so let’s try this together.” That’s how we got started.”
From there, with the help of the Bergen Volunteer Center’s Mentoring Youth Program, Sherman and his mentee were able to grow together, and Sherman was able to advise and remain a guide and support system for a boy who was moved to several different foster homes over the course of his young life. When this young man was adopted three years ago, during the name-changing process, he chose a middle name to reflect the one constant that he had always had in his life: Joseph.
“I got very choked up when they told me,” Sherman said. “It was actually his adopted mother who told me they had talked about it and that he was going to do that. It was a very nice moment. I was actually at the courthouse too, at the adoption ceremony, and it was very touching and serene event.”
This story reflects one of many success stories that the Bergen Volunteer Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, has helped to make possible through this Mentoring Youth Program, created in the mid to late 1970s.
“The first thing that [Joe Sherman and his mentee’s story] says about the Bergen Volunteer Center is that the work we do – the opportunity to put talented, caring people with the people who need them – is an honor. It is such a profound and important way to knit the community together,” said Lynne Algrant, CEO of the Bergen Volunteer Center. “I think it also tells us so much about our community and about Bergen County – that there are people here like Joe Sherman. With everything he does, he still makes time for another’s child, and he does so in such an awesome and devoted way. It is very powerful. To be in the business of making these kinds of connections happen and be able to strengthen the community through the power of all the great people we have here, is wonderful work.”
Sherman has remained the most constant adult in his mentee’s life. “He’s my pal and I’m his,” Sherman said. Sherman has been able to expose this young man, who will be turning 13 in October, to opportunities and experiences he may have not otherwise have had. “I have tried to give him experiences through the years that I had when I was a little guy. And I’ve also given him some experiences that I never had.”
Most importantly, the two have spent six years learning from each other. “When we were early on in our mentee-mentor relationship, I wanted to take him to a ball game, but I didn’t know if he’d have the patience to sit through one. So I took him to see the Newark Bears, and got seats right behind the dugout. As one of the players was coming off the field one inning, he was holding a ball, and I put my hand up and the player threw it up to me. I gave it to my little guy, and he was all excited. A couple innings later, there was another player at the dugout holding a ball and a bunch of kids were yelling ‘Give me the ball; give me the ball,’ and I said to him, ‘Here’s a lesson for you: if you say please and he hears you say it, I guarantee you you’ll get another baseball. So he said “Please can I have the ball,” and the player looked at him and then at me, and I nodded and he threw my mentee the baseball.
Now my little guy, who was about 6 or 7 years old then, has two baseballs. Sitting next to us was a young couple with their young child with them and they said to their son, “See, if you had said that you would’ve gotten a ball too!” and my little guy heard that and looked at me and asked if he could give their son one of his baseballs. I told him it was his choice, so he reached into the bag we had the balls in and he walked over and handed it to the son.”
A lesson in the power of “please,” became a lesson in generosity and sharing. ”He’s always been really kind and generous with other people, always. It was a great day,” Sherman remembers, fondly.
Not all of the time spent together was a day in the ballpark, however. Over the years, this young man was moved to several different foster homes, sometimes in rapid succession. Yet, Sherman was always there. “There was one point where he was starting to open up; he knew he was going to get moved, and he didn’t want to get moved,” Sherman said. “He said: “Why cant I stay here?” and “Doesn’t anyone want to listen to what I have to say?”
It was the first time he was expressing himself in such a way, and all I could do was listen. I said to him, “Wherever you end up, I’m going to show up.” He said “I know that, Joe.” He wasn’t worried about that. He had a great deal of comfort that wherever he would go, he knew I was coming. I was told he was always looking forward to my arrival, and it has continued with his adopting parents. They’re very accepting of my presence, and they ask me for help in terms of dealing with some of the things he’s dealing with. He’s living with more parameters and guidelines than he’s had in the other places, and he seems to be flourishing.
It was Sherman’s dedication to this young man and their give-and-take relationship that ultimately led to the mentee’s adoption.
“Joe’s consistent presence, week in and week out meant that this little boy, despite everything else in his life, could still take the risk to learn to trust and love adults,” Algrant said. “And I believe in my heart of hearts, and I think that the research proves it, still being able to trust and love is an advantage he had to becoming adopted. So what we’re really looking at is that Joe’s presence in this boy’s life during the difficult times was probably one of the key factors that has lead this boy to have a successful outcome: a permanent family and a family who loves him.”
Through it all, the Volunteer Center was there to support Sherman and to collaborate with him on how to best aid his mentee. One of the key people helping at the Volunteer Center is Faith Samples-Smart, the Mentoring Youth Program Director – a member of the team that Algrant credits for making the group so highly professional and efficient.
“Faith has a PhD., and she has been a mentor to both kids and parents. She brings both her heart to the work, and her knowledge about how best to intervene with kids to set them on the right path,” Algrant said. “Having that support behind the mentors is what makes the mentor/mentee relationships last a long time, and this longevity is the key to our program’s success. These kids need consistency, and they need to know someone is there for them and will stick by them. So we’re helping the mentors to do that with the professional training and support we provide – hidden from view.”
Getting involved with the Mentoring Youth Program is just a call and an interview away, and the Center is always looking to get people involved. The Mentoring Program requires extensive training and a background check, with the training program being offered three times a year. Once the training is completed, mentors meet their mentees at the ceremonial ‘Match Night.’
The Volunteer Center of Bergen County offers support to more than just at-risk children and families, too. Three other key service programs are the CHORE program, a mentoring program for mothers who have children who are at-risk, and the Bergen LEADS program.
The CHORE program looks to help senior citizens stay safe in their home, with installations of grab bars, banisters, new locks, etc. The volunteers for this program are often senior citizens themselves.
The mentoring for mothers program works the same way as the Mentoring Youth Program, with intensive training required, but looks to help keep families together. The goal is to help mothers to provide a more stable home for their child, as well as give the mother a trusted friend and guide that can help give support for goals and choices being made.
Bergen LEADS offers unique community service from the Volunteer Center, too. The idea behind the program is to help educate the community about the civic and public policies of Bergen County, “with the idea that an informed population is more involved and brings the county together,” according to Algrant. With a county of 70 different municipalities, there are many volunteer roles, from firefighters to education boards to elected officials, so this program aims to educate and help people understand how the civic institutions on a local scale work.
Going forward, The Volunteer Center also hopes to broaden its horizons and bring in volunteers in a less traditional way. What Algrant hopes to do is launch a virtual mentoring space for caregivers, as well as ‘Skills Link’ to match people’s skills with projects needed in the community. What this center hopes to achieve more than anything is to make a difference locally, and bring everyone together.
“Volunteer time is incredibly valuable, but it is not something we put a price on,” Algrant said. “The Volunteer Center is really the best kept secret in Bergen County. We hope to use our 50th Anniversary to take a giant megaphone and say “look at all the great ways that as a community, we are making our community better.” Sometimes suburbia can feel a little disconnected and nowadays with technology and all our separate houses, you might not feel as connected to the community as you might want to be. I believe that through the Volunteer Center, we can find a lot of ways to be connected, and once you are, there’s so many great ways to give back. When you do, you’re happier and healthier. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”