By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Phillip Lee remembers eighth grade. Slipping grades in an A-level math class had him ready to give up.
“It was a struggle. It would have been easier to drop down,” Lee said. “But my father and my teacher, Mrs. McConowitz, said no. She met me before school, taking time out of the rest of her day.”
Lee was able to continue in his A-level classes, thanks to her help. He credits her encouraging him to do well.
“Fifteen years later, I think, what if I’d taken the easy way out?” Lee said. “I wonder if I’d have been as successful. Done as well in college? I met my wife in college. Would I have known her?”
Understanding the value of mentoring made Lee sign up for the Stein Fellowship. Accepted into the multigenerational mentoring program two years ago, Lee was matched with a seasoned community leader as his mentor and Darion Moore as his Achievers For Life mentee.
With both his family and his employer, Florida Blue, deeply committed to community involvement, Lee had the encouragement and flexibility to give one hour a week to a middle school student.
What Lee didn’t know was that the matchup with Darion would become a tight partnership.
“The first year at Butler, we met about every week at school,” Lee said. “I went in thinking that the program was about academics, but I learned that it wasn’t always. Sometimes, it was about listening and being an advocate.”
“He helped me to get better grades. I wasn’t focused a lot,” Darion said. He took Lee’s encouragement to heart and is now on the A/B Honor Roll with civics as his favorite class.
When the school year ended, Lee extended his involvement with Darion through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, which allowed them to do different events outside of school.
“My favorite time was when we went to Dave & Buster’s,” said Darion.
“Do you remember what we talked about there?” Lee questioned.
“How to earn money for a game,” Darion answered, smiling.
They had worked together on budgeting and saving money and Darion was proud to say that after saving his money he was able to buy the game that he wanted.
“I can’t go places with my Dad; he’s in South Carolina,” Darion said. “I get to do things with Mr. Phillip.”
Darion’s mother encourages their work together, knowing that having fun and getting an education are important.
Lee involves Darion in family gatherings and introduces him to as many opportunities as possible.
With Lee’s encouragement, Darion had the chance to join Dan Hicken and Jeff Prosser on the 1010XL sports radio show, “The Drill.” Together, they recorded public radio spots and presented them to numerous local and national groups.
Between the civics classes and learning to advocate, Darion now has interest in law school. It’s a ways off, but he knows that he has to stick with his studies to get where he wants to go.
I found out recently that there are 45 students at Butler who qualify for a mentor but don’t have anyone,” Lee said. “There are a number of things that happened to me. Friends, family and my high school football coach made a difference.”
He knows firsthand what a difference mentoring can mean, and he is encouraging others to change the lives of children, like Darion, and make that difference.