Drawing from her own experiences with adversity, Dena Petty of Midlothian has made it her life’s mission to provide mentoring services to at-risk youth.
Since its inception 10 years ago, her nonprofit organization, Mentors Care, has grown to where it is serving at-risk students at six high schools in five school districts: Ferris, Maypearl, Midlothian (both campuses), Palmer and Red Oak.
The success the program has seen is now driving Petty to get the program into even more schools, including the rest of the ISDs in Ellis County. She’s been in contact with the county’s judges for Mentors Care to be a part of the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program when it’s established.
“We’re excited about that,” said Petty, who’s also in contact with several districts in Johnson County. Her goal is to eventually take the program statewide.
What Mentors Care does is connect at-risk high school students with adult volunteers who will mentor them toward graduation and purposeful lives. It’s not a basic mentoring program but one with a fully developed curriculum mentors lead students through – a key difference between Mentors Care and other youth mentoring programs.
There is a cost of about $40,000 per campus; however, what that money provides is a full-time, on-campus program coordinator whose responsibilities include the recruitment and training of mentors, the connecting of mentors to the youths and the coordination of efforts with the school. The coordinator also works to facilitate setting up the youths with community resources they need that would make their lives better.
The program’s mentors meet for an hour once a week with the student on campus only and only during the school year (students are pulled from non-core classes) – and they work through the Mentors Care module-based curriculum that’s been especially developed to give students the skills they need to move forward and find success. The mentors also review grades and school attendance with their mentees while utilizing Mentors Care-developed talking points to engage them in discussions.
During an interview with KBEC 1390AM/99.1FM owner Jim Phillips for the station’s Hour of Hope broadcast, Petty shared how she grew up in a home environment she described as “very dysfunctional.”
“I was an at-risk kid,” she said. “It was a very unhealthy childhood.” That home environment led to her missing school and, when she would go to class, she was unengaged and sat off by herself.
“I don’t remember my mother ever waking me up to go to school,” she said. “I don’t remember her ever checking my report card. Education wasn’t important. I would have loved to have had Mentors Care in my life when I was growing up.”
What did provide her a beacon of hope were the three times or so she had contact with an aunt.
“She was loving, kind and godly,” Petty said. “I watched her – and I soaked that up.”
While Petty did manage to graduate, she found herself living in her car after she left home and working as a wallpaper hanger until she saved up enough money to go to Louisiana Tech University. It was there she would meet Todd Petty, her husband of 32 years now. She worked as a youth pastor for several years and then, after the family moved to Midlothian in 2006, started putting together Mentors Care after hearing from a high school principal about the need for a mentoring program.
She knew she wanted Mentors Care to be more than a simple connection made between an at-risk youth and an adult.
“I didn’t want this to be just a volunteer program,” she said. “I put a curriculum together and we made it deliberate, with a purpose and a reason.”
She approached Midlothian High School with the program but was told there wasn’t money in the budget to do what she was prepared to set up. However, a community connection told her his group had recently set aside money for a service-type project – and Mentors Care was able to install its first on-campus coordinator at the school.
“We were in a broom closet in the Midlothian High School library but it was a start,” Petty said.
Mentors Care takes referrals from each campus where it has a program and makes its services available for grades 9-12. It prefers a two-year commitment from the students but “any time spent with them is not in vain,” she said.
The program has had student participants ranging from those involved all four years to those staying only a few weeks. The ones who stay with it for at least two years are the ones Mentors Care has tracked to a 98-percent graduation rate.
“I’m so passionate about this,” she said of what is being accomplished. “I’m called to working with kids and we now have the numbers to show. There are so many stories to tell.”
With Mentors Care’s success rate, Petty’s striving to expand the program, which means also securing more mentors and funding. (“I’m always fundraising,” she says.)
“Every school has a waiting list,” said Petty, noting that mentors all undergo mandatory training and updates, along with background checks.
“You’re going to do what you know unless someone shows you a different way,” she said of the at-risk students before saying of a mentor’s role, “You show them. You teach them there’s other ways to have your life. … You teach them how to take control of their future.”
She notes that one hour a week over the course of a school year equates to about 24 hours out of a nine-month time frame.
“You are changing a kid’s life with those 24 hours,” she said. “It’s never in vain.”
For more information about Mentors Care, including how to become involved or to make a donation, visit www.mentors.care or call 501-628-4252.