By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Marc and Anne enter through the small front foyer and head down the locker-lined hallway, where they're greeted by Sister Jean Panisko, Annunciation's principal since 1980. Although she isn't wearing a black-and-white habit, Sister Jean looks the part of a devout nun. She stands maybe five feet, three inches tall, but she's a giant to the students, her presence at once commanding and calming.
Sister Jean was thrilled when she was asked to sit on the advisory board for Meyerhoffer's mentoring program. Over the decades, she's seen firsthand the dramatic change that a positive role model can have on a child, recognized the powerful counterbalance of a consistent adult figure against the vicious forces of poverty, drug use, crime and domestic chaos. She knows this in a way that only elementary-school teachers can: from the lost, perplexed look in the eyes of children talking about the fathers or mothers they rarely speak to, or barely remember, or never met at all. Eyes that become distant, eventually even vacant. Entire classrooms filled with silent, vulnerable eyes.
In most cases, even imperfect or infrequent parental contact is better than none at all, especially for kids whose moms or dads are in jail. So Sister Jean takes it upon herself to sustain that connection when she can.
Michael was three years old when his 26-year-old mother disappeared one night after leaving a north Denver bar. Three years later, in October 2004, her Chevrolet Suburban was discovered at the bottom of a Thornton reservoir. That November, the young boy and his older sister and brother got the news that the body inside the car had been positively identified through DNA as that of their mother; police ruled the death accidental.
Michael's father wasn't around for the revelation. He's on his second year of a seven-year prison sentence at the Limon Correctional Facility for first-degree assault with a deadly weapon (he also served time in the early '90s for a felony drug conviction). Michael speaks with his father at least once a month over the phone, usually from right there in Sister Jean's office. Juliana's father has been in and out of jail for the past decade, too, usually on drug or weapons charges.
Marc and Anne have been told all of this. They're waiting with the nun by the wooden benches at the foot of the trophy case when Meyerhoffer and the two children emerge. After introductions, at Meyerhoffer's suggestion, everyone moves back into the principal's office.
Anne bends down low. "Do you like to go by Juliana or Julie?" she asks.
The girl shrugs.
"Sometimes people call me Ann and sometimes people call me Ann-ee," Anne says. "I don't really care which one." With her long, curly brown hair and warm demeanor, she bears a slight resemblance to a life-sized Cabbage Patch doll. Juliana tucks her chin into her shoulder and lets a small smile creep onto her face.
Marc and Anne talk with the kids about what they'd like to do for fun. There's Chuck E. Cheese's, or maybe a basketball or soccer game? Overwhelmed by the possibilities, Michael concentrates on dragging chairs from the hallway into the office. Meyerhoffer asks him to knock it off -- twice. "Mike!" he says.
Normally, Marc is talkative. A chat with him can suddenly shift from easygoing to intense, as he leaps into a high-minded monologue on politics, history, psychology. But now he shifts uncomfortably in his chair by the door, straining to come up with something to say. His oversized black sweater hangs loosely on his frame, almost cloaking his belly; he pushes the sleeves up, revealing faded, home-done tattoos. The largest is a black-toothed band that wraps around his left forearm and connects to a strange, bird-shaped blot spreading below his elbow. On his right arm are big rose-colored blobs of scar tissue. For a moment, Michael halts his fidgeting and eyes the prison tattoos and razor-blade scars. Marc asks if he ever watches Mexican soccer. Michael nods enthusiastically.
"Do you ever watch," Marc thinks for a second, "Cruz Azul de Latina?"
"Yeah," the boy answers right away. "That my favorite team. And my grandpa's."
Mentoring match-ups in a highly structured program such as this can fail for a variety of reasons. Families move, kids drop out, schedules conflict, mentors become too busy. One hour per week is the minimum commitment, but volunteers can spend as much time as they want with their mentees. Meyerhoffer hopes that each pairing will last at least a year; the most effective scenario is for a mentor relationship to continue for three years. In the best cases, the mentor will maintain contact until the child reaches high school and beyond.
Marc thinks back to when he was Michael's age. Before the gangs and crime, before the needles, cheap vodka and regular stays at the Cook County Jail. Before hopelessness and lack of direction consumed his life. If someone had just come to his school, pulled him out of his kindergarten class and started taking him to soccer games on weekends, who knows? Maybe things would have been different.