WARREN — Twelve years ago, a group of St. Blase Catholic Church parishoners in Sterling Heights got together in an effort to mentor local school children who could use an extra hand.
They called their group TEAM Youth, and found a cluster of students to guide: the first-graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Van Dyke Public Schools.
“We looked at wanting to make a difference with a group of students,” Founding Member and Vice President Kristin Brender said. “We knew two-thirds of the students had free or reduced lunch. We knew there was a great need there, economically. Somebody on our board knew the superintendent at the time. We met with the school board and got the approval.”
From that moment, lifelong bonds between the youngsters and their supporters formed. TEAM Youth has nine board members, and Katie Bushe is the executive director.
Since 2001, TEAM Youth and the students spent many hours together enjoying Easter egg hunts, assemblies, field trips, heart-to-heart talks, classroom visits, after-school tutoring, character-building programs and much more. As the students got older and more problems arose, they learned to confide in their mentors even more.
“They looked at us as trusted adults with any issue they were having at home or otherwise,” Brender said. “Many of them had a single parent, one parent incarcerated or had issues with cutting themselves. Some had threatened suicide.
“I think they need somebody they can trust and who will be a voice and let them be exactly who they are,” Brender said. “We were their safe haven. They knew they would always be greeted with a smile from their mentors, hugs, and knew that we cared.”
The adults continued mentoring the students as they moved on to Lincoln Middle School and then Lincoln High School. They also got to know the students’ families.
TEAM Youth was made possible through donations.
“Many of (the donations) were from friends of ours,” said Brender, who has four children of her own.
Since its inception, the group logged nearly 7,000 volunteer hours with 60 volunteers. And last month was bittersweet. On May 28 during an awards night at LHS, TEAM Youth awarded $40,000 in scholarships to 24 of the 2013 LHS graduates they helped mold.
Gage Ottinger came to Lincoln as a fourth-grade student. He turned to his mentor, Mr. Zito, when he started getting bullied in the eighth grade.
“I used to get jumped,” he said.
He couldn’t wait until he saw Mr. Zito and the other mentors again. He remembers visits to a science museum and family-style barbecues.
“I would be safe with people that actually cared,” Ottinger said. “My mentor knew something was a little wrong. He would get me to open up. I opened up to almost all the mentors. They made such an impact. I always knew I wasn’t alone anymore.
“I think of them as role models,” Ottinger said. “They were the ones that pushed me to try. They always taught me to be nice to everyone and always have a smile.”
Ottinger, 18, said he doesn’t think he would be the person he is today without TEAM Youth. That includes winning the titles of homecoming king and senior class president this year.
The Warren resident has big plans for the future. First up is a four-year stint in the United States Navy. He also wants to double major in music education and sign language, and minor in English education at either Grand Canyon University or Olivet College.
Felicia Pantoya, of Warren, remembers TEAM Youth more from her middle school and high school years.
“I was always with Miss Diane,” the 17-year-old said. “She was always encouraging me to do better and do anything I had to do to (be) successful.” Pantoya said everything would have “been different” without her mentors.
Pantoya’s world crashed around her when, in seventh grade, her brother Peter passed away. TEAM Youth became her support.
“Miss Diane and Miss Katie were always there for me,” she said. “They were always the first persons I went to when I needed someone. I’ll stay in touch for sure.”
And the connection the mentors and students have shared for all these years will grow stronger.
“We will be in touch with them most likely on an annual basis,” Brender said.
Two scholarships given last month were named in honor of two mentors who passed away: Tania Borboni and Mark Zito. Borboni’s scholarship was for $1,000, and The Everyday Hero Scholarship for $10,000 was given in Zito’s memory and presented by his wife, Maggie, who is a board member. Several students shared the money.
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