The adults started coming a little before 12:30, trickling into the art room in twos and threes, making small talk as they waited.

It was a cold, rainy Tuesday, but there was a buzz of anticipation in the room.

The reason why quickly became apparent when sixth and seventh grade students toting lunch trays entered the room and swiftly paired up with an adult.  The overflow headed for the library, and another session was underway for the volunteer mentors at Pickett Academy, 1144 Blum St.

Some twosomes got right to work, coming up with reasons why they are thankful and then composing a paragraph using those reasons.  Others made small talk, conversing about how to make mac and cheese or about a family expecting a new baby.

The different approaches were just fine with Sherrie Brown, the assistant principal at Pickett who introduced the mentor program when she came to the school five years ago. She had overseen a similar program for the previous 11 years at Chase STEMM Academy.

“A lot of it is about socialization,” Ms. Brown says.  "It’s about connecting with people and building trust and relationships.”

She admits that when the mentoring program first started, many of the students were disrespectful to the adults.  But as trust was gained, there’s been a transformation.

“Now I have kids begging to come,” she says. “They’re kids again.”

The mentoring program consists of approximately 50 adult volunteers, who give up their lunch hours on a Tuesday or Wednesday to help the students. Some of the mentors are retired, while others come from Toledo law firms and such giant corporations as Dana Corp. and Owens Corning.

The Owens Corning connection is so strong that Ms. Brown recently nominated her group of mentors for a company award.  The group won and promptly donated the $10,000 prize to Pickett.

Seeking a lasting legacy - and a way to show the students how to act when they are in high school and then college and the work force - school administrators decided to use the money to buy round tables for the cafeteria to make it feel more like a restaurant setting.  Other plans call for a Girl Scout troop to teach etiquette and manners training.

Jane Empey, a customer service employee of Owens Corning, has been mentoring for Ms. Brown since the program first started at Chase.  This year, she’s working with seventh grader Diamond Leiba.

Ms. Empey first became a mentor because she loves to read and thought tutoring would be a perfect fit.  She has come back year after year because she loves being with the students.

“You really see them grow through this opportunity,” she says.  “They have another adult to talk to, to depend on, to offer them encouragement.”

Diamond, who hopes to be a cosmetologist and open her own beauty shop, echoes her mentor.

“I like that they help us with our work and help us better ourselves,” she says.

The dynamic between the two is why it's so important to have volunteers in each of the 40 TPS elementary schools and the nine high schools, says Linda Meyers, transformational leader in charge of community relations and the Scott and Waite learning communities.

"It's important to build the whole child and not just the academia," she said.

Jean Sparks, who was Mrs. Empey’s colleague before retiring in July, says she has kept coming back for 14 years because “I couldn’t walk away from it.”

The student Ms. Sparks is mentoring – sixth grader Diashanae Williams – is new to the program.

“They help us get a better understanding of things,” she says.

Diashanae says her favorite subjects are reading and science and she wants to be a nurse one day.

It’s fostering such dreams that led Susan Edinger, an internal auditor at the University of Toledo, to show up recently for her first day as a mentor.

“I was a substitute teacher for many years and I loved working with kids,” she said. “I want to remind them that learning is fun and they can achieve whatever they want.”

Toledo Public Schools is always looking for volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer, please call the school nearest you or fill out a Partners in Education form at

Posted on November 13, 2015