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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Mentoring programs complain about the lack of adult males. So one took a chance on Marc Plaskie.

As is often the case with children their age, it takes little time for Juliana and Michael to warm up to their mentors. "Statistically, that's why mentoring programs are so much more successful when you're dealing with younger kids," Meyerhoffer says. "Developmentally, they're almost like a sponge; they're soaking everything in. They're developing empathy, they're developing understandings of feeling and trust. It really does teach them a way of acting and understanding people."

In the weeks after the trip to Chuck E. Cheese's, Anne and Marc plan activities that will be a little easier on their wallets. The kids don't mind. They buy Michael a basketball, and he and Marc shoot hoops in the park while Anne and Juliana watch from a nearby swing set. Juliana tells Anne about "Spider," a game she'd play sitting on her mother's lap, swinging back and forth like a swooping arachnid. "I really miss the old days when I got to play with my mom," Juliana says. The "old days" were back before her father went to jail and her mother started working two jobs. Juliana was four when her father, Alex, landed in jail for cutting false checks and a federal weapons charge. At first he was housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, but he's since been moved to Florence. Juliana's sad comment is very articulate for a six-year-old, and Anne realizes just how intelligent the girl is.

With her years of nannying experience, Anne is no stranger to early childhood education. Whenever Marc describes his family's dysfunctional home life, she has a habit of interjecting pop-psychology explanations into his story, as if retying loose threads of a quilt she's attempting to repair. Since she has little patience with bad parenting -- the reason she left her nannying job in Virginia -- Anne's biggest concern with becoming a mentor is that she'll feel compelled "to rush in and fix every little thing" in the child's life.

At Meyerhoffer's suggestion, Anne visits Juliana's home and meets with her mother, Angelina. Their apartment is tidy and clean, and Anne can tell that the 28-year-old mother works hard to raise Juliana and her twelve-year-old brother. Since Alex went to jail, Angelina has had another child with her current boyfriend and is pregnant with her fourth. "She clearly cares a lot for her kids and is doing the best that she can as a single mother," Anne says. So if Anne's only role as a mentor is playing and talking on swing sets, that's fine.

Through the spring, the couple and the cousins visit those mainstays of Denver childhood: the Children's Museum, the Butterfly Pavilion and Casa Bonita. Marc and Anne slowly begin to understand the differing family dynamics of the two kids. Michael rarely leaves his grandparents' house, an old Victorian in Curtis Park, except to run errands and go out with Juliana. Juliana's father has a large, extended family, with many relatives living within a ten-block radius in north Denver. On weekends, she's often jumping between houses and apartments while her mother works.

Sometimes Marc and Anne will go to pick up the kids and find that they're not where they're supposed to be. A relative will direct them to an aunt's house, the aunt will say the kids are with an older cousin. Often they feel like they're on a scavenger hunt. "This is the story of our weekends," Anne says with a laugh.

For Michael's seventh birthday, the couple plans to go to his house for a small party. An expert at baking cakes, Anne makes a basketball-shaped birthday cake. But when they knock on the door, no one's home. Apparently, Michael's grandfather simply forgot the mentors. Anne ends up giving the cake to a women's shelter. They never tell Michael.

But as the families realize that Marc and Anne are a consistent presence, they get better at having the kids at the right places. Summer comes and goes in a blur. There's a trip to the planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and program activities like miniature golf and days at the water park. Marc and Anne had high hopes of feeding the kids only healthy food, but eventually give up on that. Whenever they go to the movies, Juliana gets nachos and Michael gets a pretzel, though neither manage to finish their snacks.

In July, they try the bumper cars at Fat City. Michael grips the controls and strains against his seatbelt, his face fixed in an expression of unabashed glee. He jacks the levers and his bumper car spins 180 degrees. Now he sets his sights on Marc, whose blue bumper car is pinned against the opposite wall by some teenage girl. Their eyes lock. Michael accelerates forward, and Marc throws up his hands in mock terror. As they collide and bounce off each other, Anne yells and laughs from behind the safety railing. Michael merrily scoots away, sticking his tongue from the side of his mouth.

"I think the time spent with [the mentors] has helped him wonderfully at school, but has also helped him personally," says Sister Jean. "Letting him have various experiences and just learning experiences, he's learning how to act in different situations. And his speech is improving." The mentors have not only helped give Michael the structure he needs, but offered some reprieve for the grandparents.

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