CHAMPAIGN - On New Year's Eve, the Rev. James P. McClarey got a couple of unexpected guests at his Champaign home.
Two Centennial High School seniors, Ben Baker and Courtland Louie, stopped by to visit with McClarey and his wife for a couple of hours before heading out for the night.
They played some ping-pong, talked about nothing in particular. But to McClarey, the boys' mentor since middle school, it was an affirmation of the trust he had been trying to instill for the past seven years.
Counselors, parents and the boys themselves say McClarey is a big reason the two students made it through school. When they graduate from Centennial on Tuesday night, McClarey plans to be in the audience alongside their parents.
"I'm proud of them for what they are," said McClarey, retired pastor from the First United Methodist Church in Champaign.
Baker and Louie are the first students in the award-winning TALKS Mentoring program to graduate from high school. Starting as early as third grade, TALKS mentors meet once a week with three students for the entire school year. Using a curriculum developed by the program's founder, the Rev. Harold Davis, they discuss life issues and try to impart bits of wisdom.
The idea is to stick with the kids through high school, and McClarey's group has been together the longest. One boy told Davis he wouldn't be in school today if it weren't for McClarey.
"With just a minute effort on the part of adults, you can really bring light to the life of a child," said Davis.
That wasn't always obvious to McClarey, who found the early mentoring sessions to be anything but smooth.
He would have to keep the boys from fiddling with teaching equipment in whatever room they were meeting at Jefferson Middle School. One boy liked to hide so that McClarey and the others would have to go find him. All three boys had agreed to take part in the TALKS program, but they carried a skepticism inherent in preteens.
"They didn't particularly like each other at first, and they weren't sure about me," the soft-spoken McClarey said. "Kids like that often don't want to be in school, period, so a chance to get out of class makes it easier for them to consent. You still have to win their hearts."
MClarey tried to find common interests with the boys. He went beyond the prescribed TALKS curriculum, arranging to play basketball or tennis with them at school and even inviting them home to dinner on occasion.
Then one day toward the end of the first school year, the group had what McClarey considers a defining moment. McClarey planned to play basketball with the boys during their scheduled meeting at Jefferson. When one boy showed up with his arm in a sling, McClarey wasn't sure what to do. Another boy found a soccer ball that the two could kick around while McClarey shot baskets with the third student.
"I think that was one turning point," he said. "It said the group means something. It was the first sign that another level was bring reached."
One of the boys originally assigned to McClarey moved away, and Baker and Louie both said they thought the mentoring group would peter out. But "it just kept going," Baker said.
"He wanted to come back year after year, so why not give it a chance?" Louie said.
Both agreed the sessions with McClarey were helpful.
"He brought a different view, an older view," said Louie, who would recommend the program to other students. "It's a tool for them if they don't have anybody to talk to."
Both students have applied to Parkland College, and Louie hopes to transfer to the University of Iowa or Eastern Illinois University and become a teacher.
Baker's mother, Sherry Baker, attributes much of her son's progress to McClarey's influence. She had no hesitations about enrolling her son in the program back in sixth grade.
"Ben used to fight at the drop of a hat," she said. "I've just seen him get along with students better than he ever has. He just seems more settled. He has matured quite a lot, and I think Mr. McClarey has done wonders with his overall attitude."
She was impressed that McClarey went the extra mile, helping Ben with his driver's training and opening his home to him.
"Ben has felt welcome with him; he's always felt accepted," she said. "I think it's an awesome program."
Davis, a former teacher and youth pastor at Canaan Missionary Baptist Church in Urbana, started TALKS in the mid-1990s as a way for black churches to help young men. The curriculum he wrote - "Talks My Father Never Had With Me" - was later adapted for use in the schools. His wife, Ollie Watts Davis, an associate professor of music and conductor of the Black Chorus at the University of Illinois, wrote "Talks My Mother Never Had With Me" for women mentors to use with young girls.
Mentors are given a racially mixed group with one student who excels, one whose academic performance is average and one who is at-risk. The idea is to generate positive peer pressure for the at-risk child to achieve, Davis said, but all three students usually benefit from the extra adult attention.
"One of my subliminal motivations is racial reconciliation," he added, noting that the program helps break down generational and racial walls.
Supporters say the curriculum is what separates TALKS from other mentoring programs. Davis said he wrote it as a "preemptive strike" at adult problems he kept confronting in counseling sessions as a pastor.
"I tell adults all the time, 'Everything you've struggled with, kids are still there,'" he said, whether it's fear of bullies, peer pressure or relationships with siblings.
The curriculum also covers anger management, work ethic, rejection, loyalty, being courteous and having a positive attitude. Students are given passages to read and then to discuss with the mentor. Each chapter includes suggested questions and quotes for the children to memorize.
"We celebrate wisdom," Davis said. "We're creating a culture where wisdom, and receiving wisdom from adults, is the preferred thing."
At the annual TALKS banquet this month, 60 children stood up to quote favorite sayings, from Mark Twain to George Bernard Shaw to W.C. Fields.
"No one can figure out your worth but you," said fourth-grader Asilah Patterson, quoting Pearl Bailey.
One high school junior summed up the program with her quotation: "People seldom improve when they have no other role model but themselves to copy."
Now based at Provena Behavioral Health, the TALKS program has 104 adults mentoring more than 250 children in Champaign, Urbana and St. Joseph. Davis hopes to expand it to other school districts. TALKS is also used by schools in eight other states.
"We are still in need of mentors," Davis said. "There are several schools I go into right now where little girls will pull my sleeve or my elbow and say, 'Where's my mentor?'"
Karen Anderson is completing her first year as mentor of three fourth-graders at Carrie Busey Elementary School. She still remembers how nervous she was on her first day.
"I remember saying to them, 'Are you scared? I am,'" she recalled. "They were so easy to talk with. I was pleasantly surprised by what really great kids they are. By the end of the first session, I was hooked."
She began by asking the girls about their dreams, and each had one in mind. One girl wants to be a meteorologist, another a teacher and the last, a singer.
The future singer also suffered from stage fright and couldn't imagine standing up and saying anything in front of a crowd at the banquet. Anderson encouraged her to "never say never," went over the lessons carefully and offered to accompany her on stage.
When the banquet rolled around, the girl went up by herself to read, appropriately, the famous saying from President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
The program, said Anderson, teaches kids to believe in themselves.
"I think they just need confidence," she said. "The book talks about all the potential those children have, which I believe from the bottom of my heart. Every child is put here for a purpose, and they're very valuable."
Anderson, who lives in Savoy and works at Cozad Asset Management, has two children of her own in fifth and seventh grades. She wishes more people would sign up to mentor.
"When you get into a kid's life, you do make a difference," she said.
"I think it's the future of Champaign. If we want to make a difference in this town, we can go to a whole lot of meetings, or we can go mentor kids."
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .