The decade-old Incentive Mentoring Program (now known as Thread) in Baltimore currently serves 150 students, ages 14 to 25, with 800 volunteers, primarily students from nearby Johns Hopkins University. With a budget of $1 million next year — major donors include The Abell Foundation, The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, Ashoka and Johns Hopkins University — the agency focuses most closely on making sure youth get to school, stay in school and keep up with their work.
While volunteers meet the students in their schools and sometimes at Johns Hopkins facilities, much of the face time occurs at youths’ homes and in their communities. Founder Sarah Hemminger said each participant starts in middle school with eight volunteers assigned to them, and that cadre is gradually whittled to one by the time they finish college, which 80 percent have to date. All have graduated high school.
“Anything you would do for your own kid, we do for our kids,” Hemminger said. “If the kid doesn’t show up [to school], we show up at their house, time after time after time. We give them rides to school, pack their lunch, make sure they have clothing, make sure they have a washer and dryer in their house,” even do simple home repairs.
“You might have one IMP family member, one of the eight volunteers, whose only job is to take our kids’ younger siblings to daycare. The parent is working full time and they’re staying home with younger siblings,” Hemminger said. “One volunteer’s job might be to get the younger siblings enrolled in Head Start and take them to Head Start. That [being relieved of child care responsibility] might be the determining factor in our kid succeeding.”
“These are really exceptional kids in very extraordinary situations,” she said. Students face temptations like dealing drugs, or they have lost a parent, or they might be severely depressed. “A lot of times there are quite simple things that can be done to make it easier for them to make good choices. We can’t force them to go to school, but we can make it easier for them to choose to go to school.”
Assigning eight volunteers ensures consistency: If one leaves the program, as many as seven still remain, depending on the youth’s age, and one of the volunteers is tapped as “head of household” to organize the others in their efforts. “The most important thing for a kid is to have consistent, caring adults in their life,” Hemminger said. “There’s never complete turnover or a kid feeling abandoned. What we found brings the actual outcomes in the end is that there are real relationships that are consistent over many, many years.”
Hemminger is quick to say Thread is not trying to replace a young person’s natural family and works closely with parents, siblings and other loved ones. “We want to meet the kid where they’re at and engage all the supports they currently have,” she said. “We’re not here to solve anyone’s problem, but we can be with you for the next 10 years and figure it out together. We don’t have any solutions. We have resources.”