Stripped of work and school routines, Sunday afternoons can stretch long and lonely. In the kitchen at Sherry Barrett’s house, however, Sundays are filled with the future. It’s a bright one.
Barrett, 57, is a mentor to 9-year-old Eloisa Garcia. They get together every Sunday for about five hours. They do art projects. They play with Brandy, the family poodle. They read books together. They write fan letters to teen pop sensation Hannah Montana. And they write letters to Eloisa’s father, who is in prison.
Barrett and Eloisa were matched through a Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest program called Mentoring Children of Promise. It is designed for children whose parents are incarcerated; there are about 5,000 such children in Spokane County.
Children of parents in prison are at risk for trouble in school, for dropping out before graduating, for substance abuse, gang activity, anti-social behavior and “are six times more likely than their peers to become criminally involved,” according to a 2006 Council on Crime and Justice report. The report recommends mentoring as one of the strategies to counter the risks.
Eloisa’s mother is raising five children, and the mentoring program gives her a Sunday breather. Eloisa loves her Sunday routine. She always asks Barrett for milk in her favorite smiley-face cup. She prefers the same meal: spaghetti and meatballs. She depends on the steady presence of Barrett’s husband, Tim Henkel, president and CEO of Spokane County United Way. Henkel participates in some of the activities but is often doing what many dads do on Sundays, such as projects around the house.
When she is older, Eloisa says, “I will always remember Brandy and having fun. I will always remember Tim and Sherry. I will always remember everything.”
Photos of Barrett’s two grown daughters grace the refrigerator. She and Henkel successfully launched them into the world. They hope Sundays with Eloisa will help her launch well, too. Eloisa, in turn, enriches their empty-nest years.
“My worldview gets opened every time I’m with her,” Barrett says.
Barrett talks a lot about mentoring as part of her job with Communities in Schools, a program that helps kids stay in school. “I love to share the mentoring experience with other adults to let them know how absolutely simple it is to do. You can integrate the mentoring in what you would be doing anyway. People have a misconception you have to be something special to mentor. All you have to be is a compassionate, caring adult. And it can make all the difference in the world.”
Barrett casually drops into Sunday conversations with Eloisa the importance of school and how she hopes to be at Eloisa’s graduation someday. On the Sunday before Halloween, Barrett and Eloisa went costume shopping.
“I took her to a thrift store and she could buy anything she wanted to dress up for Halloween. She picked up a royal blue graduation cap, and we found a matching graduation gown. That made my heart sing that she would think of herself in that future context as a high school graduate. The decoration over Eloisa’s bed is the graduation gown and cap hanging on the wall.”
Eloisa listens to the story and adds, “I’m the only one that wore it. Now that I’ve said this, I bet everyone will wear it.” Barrett says, “You can start a new trend, like Hannah Montana.”
Children of Promise mentors commit to a one-year mentor relationship. Will Barrett extend her commitment when her year is up?
“Oh yes,” she says, looking at Eloisa. “Oh, yes.”