Doing Better at Doing Good

Loss of two native sons a reminder of why mentors matter

August 4, 2012 

North Carolina recently lost two beloved native sons.

On May 29, legendary musician Doc Watson died in Winston-Salem at age 89. Exactly five weeks later in Manteo, actor Andy Griffith followed at 86.

While they may be gone, their powerful influence remains very much alive in the state that helped inspire their creative genius.

MerleFest, a popular Wilkesboro music festival launched in 1988 after Watson’s son and playing partner Merle Watson was killed in a farming accident, claims a national following – and produces an annual economic benefit approaching $15 million. Mount Airy, meanwhile, has refashioned itself after Griffith’s iconic Mayberry, generating millions a year in much-needed tourism dollars for a region hard hit by the decline of manufacturing.

As we mourn the loss of these two men who made it possible for our communities to share in their success, we can honor their lives by asking a basic question: How do we nurture more people like them?

Like so many of our state’s citizens today, Watson and Griffith both faced major personal challenges early on that could easily have cut short their potential.

Watson went blind from an eye infection before his first birthday. Griffith grew up poor in Mount Airy, sleeping in dresser drawers as an infant, as the story goes, because his parents couldn’t afford a crib.

These obstacles proved surmountable in large part because of a gift that often gets lost amid grand ideas for improving health care and reducing poverty: mentoring by caring adults.

For Watson, success started with his parents, who insisted that he live fully and independently despite his blindness. As amateur singers, they also strongly encouraged his early interest in music, giving him a harmonica and a banjo. When he was 13, his father said he would buy Watson a guitar if he taught himself to play a song in a day on a borrowed one. Watson met the challenge, and it wasn’t long before his music career began on the street corners of Boone.

Fractured families

When he was a teen, Griffith found a crucial mentor in Ed Mickey. Mickey, a Moravian minister who led a brass band in Mount Airy, spotted Griffith’s talent and made time to develop it, teaching him to sing and play the trombone. Griffith tried out his new skills in Mickey’s church, and the two of them traveled to other local churches to perform. The experiences set the stage for Griffith’s future, propelling him from the wrong side of the tracks in Mount Airy to Broadway and Hollywood fame.

Fast forward about 70 years, and many of the young people in our state cannot easily find those kinds of mentors. Families are fractured and positive role models outside the family are many times in short supply.

And so, quietly, youth mentoring is becoming a key priority in many of our communities.

The N.C. Mentoring Partnership, in tandem with Communities in Schools of North Carolina and the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service (which Christopher serves on), brings together schools, churches, businesses and agencies from across the state to recruit, train and retain mentors for children and young adults. A complete list of mentoring organizations is available at www.ncmentoring.org.

Real impact

In the Triangle, more than 30 groups are part of a growing youth mentoring network. They range from Durham’s Movement of Youth, which enlists college students from around the Triangle to work with middle and high school students from minority backgrounds, to the Raleigh-based YWCA of the Greater Triangle, which pairs teen girls with adult female mentors for a nine-month program.

In Charlotte, about two-dozen similar organizations are hard at work. The Mayor’s Mentoring Alliance, with the support of Mayor Anthony Foxx, helps promote best practices among mentoring nonprofits. Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont’s Good Guides program, for example, matches youths from ages 12 to 17 with mentors who work closely with them to develop education and career goals.

These programs can have real impact.

Since 2009, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and Greensboro’s Hayes-Taylor YMCA have partnered on the YMCA Black and Latino Leadership and Mentoring Program, through a grant provided by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The program, serving grades eight through 12, focuses on developing self-awareness, which CCL has found to be the single most important factor in creating responsible citizens and leaders. Three-quarters of the 57 students who took part in the program over the past year report improved school attendance, better grades and stronger family relationships.

Think about being a mentor. It usually takes only an hour a week. And you might just meet our next Doc Watson or Andy Griffith.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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