Justin Hoskins and Jashawn Jones were both “city boys” from Chicago when they first met each other in Detroit Lakes almost seven years ago.
The two had each recently moved here from the Windy City, and by coincidence had also just joined the local Boys & Girls Club -- 8-year-old Jashawn as a member, and college student Justin as an employee.
Fate had put Justin and Jashawn on the same geographical path, and that gave them something to talk about. They compared notes about life in the big city, as well as their days in rural Minnesota. They discovered they have similar senses of humor, and a shared love of sports. It didn’t take long for them to be buds.
When Justin found out there was an opportunity to mentor Jashawn through the local Lakes Area Kinship program, he volunteered to do it. He had never considered being a mentor before, and he admits he had some initial reservations.
“When I was originally thinking about it, it sounded like a lot of responsibility, and I thought I might not have the time to be a good mentor,” he says. But he had been working with kids for years, whether at the club or through coaching, and he’d learned that “kids have so much going on outside those structured places. And I wanted to make a bigger impact on a child, across all settings.”
He thought mentoring Jashawn would be an opportunity to make that impact -- and it turns out, it has been. Justin signed up for a one-year mentorship commitment; it’s now six years later and he and Jashawn are still hanging out. They play basketball, go fishing and swimming, attend special events through Kinship, and go out for pizza, among other activities. Sometimes Justin’s wife, Alyssa, joins them, but most often it’s just the guys.
“Before me and Justin started to hang out, I was a kid who needed a male figure in my life," Jashawn says. "Justin has helped me be on the right path.”
Jashawn is a junior at Detroit Lakes High School now, and he says having a mentor has “made a big difference. It’s helped me a lot.”
Meanwhile, Justin says he’s learned the important lesson from Jashawn that, “regardless of life circumstances, you can still be a kind person.”
Jashawn hasn’t always had it easy, yet he’s “very kind, polite, and overall just a nice kid,” says Justin. “It’s always a good reminder to me that, if he can go through so much and keep a positive attitude, then I can keep a positive attitude, with the life that I have and the things I’ve been given.”
Justin has taught Jashawn how to swim, fish and longboard. He’s shown the “city boy” the ways of the country, he laughs, getting Jashawn to spend time outdoors. While Justin was a city boy himself for a while, he lived in Frazee as a teenager and enjoys the rural lifestyle.
Justin completed his master’s degree in special education while working at the Boys & Girls Club, and now works with students at Lake Park-Audubon Elementary School; he’s also a junior high football coach and head baseball coach. Jashawn, who’s about to turn 16 next week, is on the high school football team and is a boxer. He also loves to dance.
He still goes swimming, fishing and longboarding, too -- all things he may not have ever done if it weren’t for Justin.
The initial reservations Justin had about mentoring disappeared long ago.
“It’s not a burden, it’s a fun experience,” he reflects. “There’s some responsibility there, but you’re giving a child an opportunity to experience something different and see things from a different perspective. When you mentor, you see the difference.”
More mentors needed
Lakes Area Kinship coordinator Stephanie Baker says the program could use more volunteers like Justin.
There’s a need for mentors, she says -- women, men, couples and whole families are all eligible -- but men, especially, are in demand. The local Kinship currently has 46 active mentorships, and five kids on a waiting list -- four of whom are boys. There are always more boys than girls on that list, she says.
“A majority of kid referrals that I get here are boys looking for mentors, but the majority of mentors that I get applying are women, so it’s not balancing out,” says Baker. “Most of the boys that are applying for Kinship...don’t have a male role model, so they could really use that.”
Baker suspects other men might be hesitant to volunteer for the same reason Justin was -- because they feel like they don’t have enough time or the right skills to be a good mentor.
“They might think, ‘Well, I don’t know anything, I don’t have anything I can teach them.’ But we don’t expect you to ‘fix’ these kids,” Baker says. “You’re not a teacher, you’re not a social worker, you’re not a counselor. We just need you to be a friend to them. If you know how to be a great friend, you’ll be a great mentor.”
Research shows that boys with male role models have stronger healthy relationships, higher self-esteem, a reduced risk of addiction, improved behavior, better school performance and higher college enrollment rates, Baker points out. The same goes for girls who have positive role models.
Kinship is looking to recruit 100 new mentors over the next three years. Their efforts have been slowed by COVID-19, but yet 10 new volunteers have signed up in the past four months.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many people in our community are still willing to volunteer and mentor, even in the middle of a pandemic,” Baker says.
January is National Mentoring Month
National Mentoring Month is an annual campaign in the U.S. dedicated to celebrating and elevating the mentoring movement.
For more information about Lakes Area Kinship, and to apply as a mentor or refer a child, call Stephanie Baker at 218-847-8572 or visit lakescrisis.com/kinship.