“You still have all this stuff?”
Erica Gibson, a 32-year-old computer application developer consultant, cannot believe that Joan Thomas — her childhood mentor — had brought so many pieces of memorabilia with her to their latest lunch get-together. Splayed out on the table were Gibson’s old report cards, SAT scores, high school prom photos and college graduation pamphlets.
Gibson was astonished when she looked at some of her now decades-old grades. “I got a ‘D’ in conduct?” she uttered.
Thomas handed her former mentee a written assignment that Gibson had typed when she was 15. Between them was a pamphlet, which appeared to be from the early 1990s. Inside was a photograph — nearly a quarter-century old now — of Gibson embracing her lifelong mentor. “Something wonderful is taking shape,” the front of the brochure read.
Thomas, 56, has known Gibson since she was just 9 years old. Now the president of her own communications firm, Thomas recalled the chain of events that connected her — a former broadcast journalist for CNN — with the young woman from Decatur, Ga.
In the late 1980s, Thomas spotted a volunteer call for a start-up girls’ club in her church newsletter. The club, she remembered, was designed to serve children and adolescents living in an Atlanta public-housing project called “East Lake Meadows.” Due to the high amount of gang-violence in the community, Gibson said that her neighborhood was typically referred to as “Little Vietnam.”
Gibson was one of the very first girls to enroll in the club, which she and her fellow members named “Cool Girls of Atlanta.” Shortly thereafter, the club introduced a mentoring program, titled “Cool Sisters.”
“I think we met one day at the gym,” Gibson said. “We were talking, and I told her that I wanted her to be my mentor.”
Nearly a quarter century later, Cool Girls, Inc. is still in operation, having served more than 4,000 young women in the Atlanta area since 1989. Via several Title 1 school partnerships, the program currently serves about 400 girls in DeKalb and Fulton Counties. According to Cool Girls, Atlanta has more young girls living in poverty than any major city in the United States: 30,000 impoverished youngsters represent a small sliver of the estimated 15 million young people who could benefit from mentoring programs, according to MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
Growing up in a single-parent home, Gibson said she gravitated toward Thomas, whose stable home was a far cry — literally and figuratively — from life in her East Lake Meadows neighborhood. “I always wanted to be over at that house,” she remembered.
“Before joining the girls’ club and meeting [Thomas], we only knew what was in our neighborhood,” Gibson said. “We never knew what else was out there.”
The first time Gibson left Decatur, Thomas was with with her. Her mentor was also by her side the first time she left the United States. As a young girl, Gibson even asked her mentor to be her godmother — a request that Thomas was more than happy to fulfill.
“The goal was to break the cycle,” Thomas said, “because the community in which Erica lived had challenges.” The mentoring program, she explained, was meant to show girls that they had various options in life — that they weren’t destined to spend the remainder of their lives in poverty.
“Looking at some of the girls who I grew up with, [who] I was friends with [but] didn’t partake in the program,” Gibson said, “a lot of them are still living in that same type of environment that we grew up in, and they’re content in doing that.”
Had she not been involved in Cool Girls of Atlanta, Gibson said she likely would have ended up in similar conditions.
Spurred by an interest in computers by her godfather, Gibson eventually became the first Cool Girls of Atlanta member to earn a college degree. Two decades later, Gibson is still involved in the organization, serving as a chaperone for field trips and helping organize an annual fundraiser. For her volunteer services, Cool Girls of Atlanta named an academic scholarship award in Gibson’s honor.
Over time, Thomas became much more than just a mentor to Gibson, referring to her “Cool Sister” as a second mother. “I came to depend on her so much,” Gibson stated. “Whenever I needed her, she was there.”
Almost a decade ago, Cool Girls of Atlanta nominated Thomas for a Presidential Volunteer Service Award. As a result, Thomas was invited to the White House as part of a Black History Month celebration in 2006. And when Thomas received the honor, she brought her former pupil along as a guest of honor.
“It’s one thing to have someone say, ‘Well, you deserve an award,’” Thomas recalled. “But it’s quite another to show why in such a tangible way, to show that mentoring really does make a difference.”
Photo credit: TOP: Mentor Joan Thomas, left, has known Erica Gibson, right, since she was 9 years old. This photo from 1989 ran inside a promotional brochure for Cool Girls Atlanta, the organization that put the two together (Photo by Lynne Siler, courtesy of COOL GIRLS, INC.); BOTTOM: President George W. Bush with Thomas and Gibson. Thomas received the President’s Volunteer Service Award at a White House celebration of African American History Month (Photo by Paul Morse)
James Swift is a staff writer.