Mentoring program helps children of jailed adults - Tucson Local Media: Import

Mentoring program helps children of jailed adults

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Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2006 12:00 am

December 6, 2006 - The bench press in Don McNeill's home speaks to him.

It doesn't speak in everyday exercise equipment vernacular, as in, "Hey pal, you could stand to lose a few." The message it conveys is far more profound.

McNeill, a former coach of the Saguaro High School track team, had a student who shot himself to death in the school parking lot in the late 1980s. That student had used the bench press to develop muscle and push his limits.

McNeill agonized about the athlete's death, and not long after it happened left the school. How on Earth could he, the boy's coach, not have suspected anything was wrong?

Then, the Northwest resident vowed to do what he could to keep this tragedy from happening to other youths. He would start a mentorship group, and the bench press, prominently placed in his home, would remind him of the need. For more than a decade, it has.

"I look at that and it reminds me I need to stay in shape and do the right thing and help as many kids as I can," he said.

McNeill founded One-on-One Partners in Tucson, an 11-year-old organization aimed at mentoring troubled youth. These days, he's busy recruiting mentors for MentorKids USA, a new mentorship organization in Tucson - this time, one rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith that emphasizes work with children whose parents are in jail.

"Not everybody can do this," he said about taking on a significant role in a young person's life, "but everybody knows someone who could."

McNeill first discovered the importance of mentoring when he was a normal angst-ridden teenager living near the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

He wanted to shine in athletics, but sometimes it felt so overwhelming he wanted to give up. His coach, who happened to be his dad's best friend, took him on long fishing trips and encouraged him to keep striving.

The two talked about other topics, too - about how to navigate life and how to learn from mistakes.

One week, on an extended fishing trip, the coach told McNeill a significant story from his life. He said he once loved a beautiful woman, but they had a fight and parted ways. She left town, and he got another woman pregnant. When the first returned, it was too late. But he never stopped loving her.

McNeill learned that people mess up, but they don't have to compound others' pain by messing up twice.

"If mentors try to protect you from their lives, you can't develop bonds," McNeill said. "But he trusted me with something very personal. That draws you closer together."

The memory of that coach's generosity all came back to McNeill when he found out that his own troubled student had said "no" to life in a pickup with a shotgun.

Needing to do something meaningful in response, McNeill quit coaching and took another job in the Flowing Wells School District working with children from troubled homes.

Every Monday, the children would arrive at school emotionally and physically battered, and McNeill would try to undo the damage. By Friday, spirits invariably rose, but then came another weekend.

As the children's teachers struggled with the relentless fallout, McNeill's thought of a program in Colorado through which he served as mentor for a year before moving to Tucson.

"We said, 'These kids needed somebody in their life,' and that's when I called Colorado and said we need a mentoring program in this town," he said.

In 1995, he started a Tucson branch of the Denver-based Partners program, named One-on-One Partners. Burnt out by 2004, he left Tucson to work on a faith-based grant dealing with children with incarcerated parents.

While there, he made an alarming discovery.

"Don't go to Arizona if you're a criminal," he said. "And if you do go, don't get in trouble. They'll lock you up here faster than anywhere else."

San Diego County, with double the population of Pima County, had significantly fewer young residents with moms or dads who lived in jails.

According to statistics kept by Prison Fellowship, a charity organization that works with prisons, Pima County has 20,000 such children.

When McNeill returned to Tucson, he knew exactly which segment of the population he wanted to help next. He went to the office of MentorKids USA.

The MentorKids USA organization in Scottsdale is the brainchild of Chuck Colson, a former lawyer for President Nixon who pleaded guilty in 1974 to Watergate-related charges, spent time in prison, and then emerged with an understanding of the hardships of jail time.

Originally known as Matchpoint, the 9-year-old organization pairs mentors with troubled kids, 40 percent of whom have parents in jail. With 195 mentors and slightly more young people, the leaders have their share of favorite stories.

There's the one about the young girl who wouldn't talk after she went through a sexual assault. A mentor visited every week for six months, and the girl didn't utter a word. Finally, the mentor told the girl to say something or she'd think the girl didn't want her to visit.

"The next time, the girl said, 'Hi,'" executive director Keith Staser said. "That's all she said."

Then there's the story of the tragedy in the small community of Guadalupe. A father with a restraining order against him told his little girl to tell him where Mommy was, and he promised he wouldn't hurt her.

She did, and the man shot the Mom and then himself. The mom's sister couldn't cope, and her seven kids, as well as the six who'd watched their parents die, moved in with Grandmother.

A nearby Catholic church provided 11 mentors through MentorKids USA for the children. A year or two later, Staser saw that the children were coping.

"When a tragedy like that happens, it's like someone turns out the light in their heart," he said. "When you care for the kids, you see the light turned out."

It's not out for good though.

"I saw a twinkle in that girl's eyes who led her dad to her mommy."

McNeill is just in the beginning stage of creating a Tucson branch that he hopes will someday produce its own profound stories.

This month, the fledgling organization held a charity golf tournament at the Hilton El Conquistador Country Club that raised $18,000.

Working from his home, McNeill is recruiting for a board of directors and two advisory committees - one composed of religious leaders and one of law enforcement agencies - and already has recruited some volunteers.

Volunteers should expect to commit one to three hours a week for one year or more. Those interested can call 260-1428.

If all works well, the organization will attract people like McNeill's beloved coach who, although he had five children of his own, had time to make life less frightening for a sixth.

"That's all I want to do," McNeill said.

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