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Baltimore Nonprofit's Volunteers Transform Lives, Build Community

  • Faiza Elmasry

Doing laundry, helping with homework, hanging out together — it's all part of the partnership between student and mentor, stitched together by Thread.

For more than a decade, the Baltimore nonprofit has created families that are not connected by blood. Its motto is “Never give up.” Thread matches teens who are having trouble keeping up in school or have difficulties at home with mentors and support services. The connection is designed to last 10 years, from high school through college or jobs, and beyond.

Talking, doing, learning

Applying for college can be a complicated and confusing process. But Trey, 18, is working on it with his mentor, Brenda Wilson. She is a former teacher and lawyer, which makes it a bit easier.

“We’re often frustrated with filling out forms and passwords and getting kicked back and forth,” she said. “He’s just graduated from high school and trying to set his goals and figure out what to do next. We talk about that. But we also talk about other stuff. We just talked about Donald Trump. We talked about [the fact that] he’s going to vote. We talk about other kinds of things — how he spends his time, what he likes to do.”

Trey said working with his mentor taught him that sometimes, he has to do what he doesn't like to do.

“When I was first working with Ms. Brenda,” he admitted, “I didn’t like working with computers, but she helped me get out of this and said, like, you have to learn, start working with computers. When you go to college, you have to do a lot of study on computers.”

Wilson has learned as well, and for her, this is personal.

“It doesn’t feel like volunteering,” she insisted. “It feels like Trey is someone I know and care about, like I would for someone in my family. So I feel like just what I would feel when I sat down and helped one of my children working through an application or something.”

Reaching out

Weaving these connections is the goal of Thread. The organization's story began 11 years ago, with Sarah Hemminger, then a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine. The school and the hospital are in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore.

“She kind of had been driving past a number of high schools every day, and she felt like she’s connected to the kids there,” said Thread spokeswoman Erin Bowman. Hemminger wanted to do something to help underprivileged students and give them the guidance and support they needed to succeed.

The solution was Thread. Bowman said proudly, ”It has grown since then to be the organization that we have: Thread, 207 student alumni right now and over 750 volunteers. Our long-term goal will be 3,000 students and 6,500 volunteers.”

Volunteers agree to be available whenever and wherever their help is needed — including, at times, providing rides home from school or giving advice on relationships. They can also provide a sympathetic ear, or a shoulder to cry on, when the student has to deal with a problem at home, such as a parent who is in prison.

Thread also makes sure students have the chance to meet with experts and learn the skills they need to land a summer job or move forward to permanent employment.

Making friends

Kiss was 15 when she joined the program, three years ago. “I had a lot of problems,” she recalled. “When I moved to Baltimore, I didn’t know a lot of people because I had no family. So when they came into my life, it helped me with everything. So it has made a big difference.”

Kiss has one more year of high school before going to college and taking the first step toward achieving her dream. She wants to be a dentist. She also wants to become a volunteer with the program, just like Jesse Cohen, her mentor.

Cohen, a medical student at Johns Hopkins, said the relationship goes both ways.

“Kiss has taught me a lot about perseverance,” he said. “She’s overcome numerous obstacles to get where she is today, and yet it doesn’t seem like that to her. I think she appreciates kind of what she’s up against, which is really inspiring.”

Making sure students feel understood, cared for and appreciated is one of the secrets behind Thread's success.