INDIANAPOLIS – Amidst rapid-fire bantering, 12-year old Mario and his younger brother Michel run up and down the basketball court tossing shot after shot. Most hit off the rim with a loud bang, but every once in a while, the swish of the net lights up Mario’s face.
Like many kids, Mario wants to play professional sports. His love for basketball and soccer is one of the first topics he brings up when meeting new people.
However, Mario’s dreams are not restricted by boundary lines on a court or field. He aspires to something more, something he was first exposed to through an afterschool program at the University of Indianapolis.
“I want to go to college,” Mario said.
Mario has been a “little buddy” in the College Mentors for Kids program for the past four years. College Mentors pairs at-risk youth with college students to encourage academic achievement and foster companionship.
The mentors meet with their little buddies once a week on their college campus. The young students learn about life skills such as financial literacy and participate in activities that range from improvisational theatre to – Mario’s favorite – making slimy “goop” in the science lab.
College Mentors has been serving kids like Mario since it was founded in 1995 by then-Indiana University student Heidi Schmidt. She believed the program would fill a void in the community and tap into student potential on college campuses.
“This is a huge pool of students that’s being missed,” Schmidt said. “This is a niche that isn’t being met. Kids get to college and they’re exploring the universe, their opportunities in life. It’s a great time to capitalize on the youth and spirit of young adults.”
College Mentors spread from IU to 32 other campuses across nine states. The organization currently serves over 2,000 little buddies, with 2,300 mentors providing guidance and friendship. The program said three-quarters of its little buddies go on to post-secondary education.
Dennis Trinkle has seen the program work first hand, first as a faculty advisor of DePauw University’s program and now as CEO of College Mentors for Kids.
“I saw over all of those years how it did lift up and transform the trajectory, not only of the little buddies but often their entire family,” Trinkle said. “By touching one kid and changing their perspective of their brothers and sisters - sometimes you change the perspective of their mom and dad who wind up going back to college themselves or going to college for the first time.”
Mario’s family is no exception. His dreams of attending college at UIndy or the University of Louisville have spread to his brother. Robin Evans has watched those college aspirations change her two grandsons.
“Mario and Michel, they’ve come a long way,” Evans said. “I say it has to be the responsibility. They’re more responsible for themselves now.”
The little buddies aren’t the only ones learning responsibility. According to Stephanie Ruddy, a 3rd grade teacher at Paul I. Miller Elementary in Indianapolis and the school’s College Mentors coordinator, the college students in the program are learning critical event planning and communication skills.
“The amount of organizational skills that the college kids have to have is phenomenal,” Ruddy said. “If they can do all of these things successfully, you can run a business on that.”
Learning life skills isn’t the only benefit for the mentors in the program. Trinkle said involvement with programs like College Mentors helps college students stay in school and graduate on time.
UIndy student Gabby Ingram agrees, adding her little buddies have helped her become a better role model.
“They motivate us to be that person they want to look up to,” Ingram said. “You don’t want to make bad decisions as a college student because you’re affecting these kids.”
Trinkle said the positive effect on the kids is becoming more evident than ever. A 2015 survey of former little buddies now old enough to have graduated from high school showed that 98 percent of those surveyed said their mentor inspired them to succeed.
Mario said he is no different.
“College Mentors got me ready to study science,” Mario said. “I want to go to college.”