Aaron Skubby, The Columbus Dispatch
Over the past nine months, 27 firefighters, police officers and members of the Ohio State Highway Patrol have stepped up to act as mentors for kids in the Columbus chapter of After-School All-Stars’ new mentorship program. To celebrate the completion of the program’s first year, mentors, mentees and their families gathered Wednesday at the Columbus Police Academy. The event opened with speeches from community leaders and Ohio State University men’s basketball guard Tanner Holden as the keynote speaker.
For 22 years, the Columbus chapter of After-School All-Stars has offered an after-school program for students. Last year, it expanded to introduce a new mentorship program. It connects children from structurally disadvantaged backgrounds with mentors who are first responders. Thirty-two kids completed the program, with mentors contacting mentees either virtually or in person more than 400 times, including 188 in-person meetings.
Melissa Wallace saw her two grandsons, D’wyte Burchfield and Kaydon England, complete the program. Both boys have expressed wanting to be firefighters. Wallace said she was happy to see how both teens, especially Kaydon, changed as a result of the program.
“He has grown so much and opened up. I’ve seen a big growth spurt in both of them. It’s been great,” she said. Firefighter Donovan Littlefield served as Kaydon’s mentor. Together the pair would do things like go to the movies or attend Columbus Blue Jackets games. Littlefield, who grew up in Columbus, said the program seemed like a great opportunity to give back to the community.
Kirstin Buckner spearheaded the mentorship program. Prior to working at After-School All-Stars, Buckner worked on the Rapid Response Emergency and Addiction Crisis Team with Columbus Fire, which inspired the idea. The program had a strong retention rate in its first year, Buckner said, beginning with 34 participating students and ending with 32. Those numbers make it stand out among similar programs in the area, she said.
“No other program has had those consistent numbers, not only throughout a six-month period, but we’ve had it over a nine-month period,” Buckner said. “I am not only floored but I am also hopeful, and I realize what’s possible when we come together. Mentorship at its core is not only about changing the trajectory of youth, but also it’s about connection,” she said. “There was this little boy who walked up to me and said, ‘Wait a minute, you have all these fire trucks and all these police cruisers out here just to say hi? No one’s getting in trouble?’”
Tim Boyd, a firefighter, mentored three brothers. He began mentoring Niyon Kirby, who has autism. Boyd’s own son has autism, so working with Niyon was important to him, he said. Boyd also picked up Niyon’s brothers Elgin and Willie as mentees. “I felt like a buddy to the boys. One of the hugest blessings was when Niyon started to come out of his shell,” Boyd said.
Boyd said that when Niyon texted him one day, he couldn’t stop showing his wife. Boyd welcomed the boys into his family, having them for dinner and introducing them to his kids.
Steven Billue, 16, who participated in the mentorship program, said his most important takeaway was the importance of understanding those around him. “It taught me to see things from a different perspective. You know, listening or hearing people out,” he said. Steven is interested in going to college and studying something related to mental health.
The program focused on a two-generation approach, making sure to work with parents along the way. Allison Ansari, who serves as development manager for Columbus’ chapter of After-School All-Stars, highlighted the importance of community buy-in for the program.
“The community came on board for After-School All-Stars and our mentorship program,” she said. “We gave every family in the mentorship program a Thanksgiving meal this year. We had winter coats for all of the kids in the program and their siblings at home. We’ve really created a family here.”