How NKY mentoring programs are transforming lives – and the community

Douglas Clark
Douglas Clark
Douglas Clark is LINK nky's Boone County reporter

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This story originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2023 edition of the LINK Reader. To get stories like this first, subscribe to our weekly print newspaper here.

Although she hasn’t been in the role very long, serving as a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati mentor has changed Bev Johnson’s life perspective.

“I enjoy my Little Sister, Ocean, because she makes me laugh, likes learning new things and we have fun sharing new experiences,” Johnson, who was matched with Ocean just over five months ago, said. “I wanted to do more with my time and get involved with helping others. The Big Brothers Big Sisters program was the best option.” 

Mentoring can be structured in a myriad of ways, to varied audiences, as a means of arriving at a variety of results. 

But conversations with those involved with such efforts in the Northern Kentucky area revealed common foundational themes that include a desire to build relationships, make a positive impact and enhance futures. 

LINK nky recently examined the multifaceted nature of mentoring through the lens of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati, Newport-based Mentoring Plus, the Disabled American Veterans Patriot Boot Camp program and Northern Kentucky University’s R.O.C.K.S. endeavor.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati 

Every child has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati Executive Director John Heater said. 

“Our mentoring model has always been and will always be one-on-one, impactful relationships, mentor helping mentee navigate the difficulties of life,” Heater said. “So when they become an adult, they are ready to help transform their community.”

The Big Brothers Big Sisters target audience is all kids, because all kids need a great influence in their life, Heater said. Roughly 80% of children that Big Brothers Big Sisters serves nationally are children of color, while 90% of the organization’s Bigs are white or Caucasian. 

“I know kids that are coming from affluent backgrounds and they have all of these things, but they have no positive role model in their life, their mom or dad are absent because they’re working 50 hours per week or more – and they’re struggling,” Heater said. “Drugs, teen pregnancy, not graduating. All kids need a positive influence.” 

As a Big Sister, Johnson encourages others to consider volunteering and be open to bringing happiness to a child’s life.

Equally enamored is Ocean, with regard to her Big Sister.

“It’s awesome to have my Big Sister to spend time with and talk to,” Ocean said. “She always listens to me and gives good advice.”

Children are suffering trauma more so than ever today because of the influences of social media and the pressures of life, Heater said. 

“We step in and provide an adult mentor that is going to love the mentee through the ups and downs that life brings,” Heater said. “We are at a crossroads in our community where kids do not have positive things in their lives. We’ve got to show up every day to give that kid hope. That’s what we do at our agency.” 

The organization ensures markers line up for both the Big and the Little, Heater said, where they share an interest so that their connection becomes more valuable and personal.

Big Brother Todd Mitchell has been mentoring Little Brother Joey for nearly 10 years.  

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati Big Brother Todd Mitchell shares a photo opportunity with Little Brother Joey. Photo provided | Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati

“I just wanted Joey to know that there are many people that care about him,” Mitchell said. “Joey has become a part of our family and has been a part of many family events. We’ve done all the fun things like Kings Island, the zoo, aquarium, fall festivals, Reds, Bengals, FC Cincinnati, UK basketball/football and every ‘Avengers’ movie.”

However, it is the moments on a walk or driving where the mentor and mentee dig deeper into life, Mitchell said.  

“I’m so honored and blessed to have been a part of Joey’s maturing and excited to see him become an independent young man,” Mitchell said. “My father died when I was age 3. Once my youngest son went off to college, I felt a need and desire to step up and be a positive role model for a boy who needed one.”

Mentoring Plus

“To me, it all comes down to compassion,” Mentoring Plus Executive Director Chris Saunders said of the organization’s goal of serving teens ages 13 to 18 – and beyond, if needed. “We partner with a lot of different agencies to try to help them, but ultimately we’re working with kids with long-term exposure to neglect, violence, abuse and mental illness.”

The youths Mentoring Plus is seeking to serve are trying to find nourishment that the agency is more than willing to provide, Saunders said. 

“A lot of our kids are in the juvenile detention (system) or they may have some mental health crises, and a lot of our families are living below the poverty line,” Saunders said. “So we’re out there trying to work with agencies to provide a mentoring service for them.” 

From its inception, Mentoring Plus has sought to close the gap that has resulted in troubled youths falling through the cracks.

“The hope remains to help kids being left behind,” Saunders said. “Or, more or less, (whom) people had given up on. The hope is to work with these teenagers, because we’re not one to give up on kids. We’re going to give them some hope so they’re in a better place.” 

Providing a nonjudgmental, holistic support system for young people is what Mentoring Plus is all about, Saunders said. He added that it’s about building that one-on-one relationship within a structured environment that includes case management for youths and their families.

“Each of our kids have their own goals that they’re working on,” Saunders said. “We have kids in our program for at least a year – on the average, roughly 18 months. We’re starting to see some kids come back and share with us how Mentoring Plus has made a positive impact on their lives.”

Mentoring Plus volunteers are referred to as life coaches, Saunders said, because they are passionate about helping youths navigate the turbulence life has presented to those needing the agency’s services.

“I came into this not realizing what kids go through,” Saunders said. “You see some things in the movies, but when I see firsthand where kids are being abused or sex-trafficked and come through their challenges, it means a lot to us. Somebody was in their life to try to make a better path for them.”

Mentoring Plus is always looking for volunteers.

“That’s probably the hardest thing for us,” Saunders said. “Kids come to our program around 5 or 5:30 p.m., and they’re in the program until 8 p.m. We need volunteers who are willing to listen or just be there for our kids. We rely heavily on those volunteers to work with a high-risk teen.”

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Disabled American Veterans Patriot Boot Camp 

“Patriot Boot Camp is a transformative incubator program for high-growth, venture-backable, veteran-owned and veteran spouse-owned businesses,” DAV Patriot Boot Camp Director Nick Brophy said at the organization’s Erlanger headquarters. “Mentorship is one of the larger and more desirable aspects of the program, where we connect our entrepreneurs with a very substantial mentor group.”

The mentors are volunteers by and large, according to Brophy, sharing expertise on topics that include venture capitalism, legal issues and operations. 

“In our program, mentees get a chance to meet one-on-one with up to eight different mentors in the two-and-a-half-day program,” Brophy said. “So that is quite a bit of mentorship. It’s a great opportunity for them to connect with at least one or two mentors that they’ll continue a relationship with, which we see all of the time.”

Marine Corps veteran Joe Brammer, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd, offers his expertise as a DAV Patriot Boot Camp mentor. Photo by Douglas Clark | LINK nky

Neil Willis is CEO and founder of and serves as a Patriot Boot Camp mentor. 

“I think for me it’s more about not just learning, but meeting,” said Willis, a veteran who served in the Air Force and worked in intelligence support aboard Air Force One during the Clinton administration. “By connecting and seeing people I can learn from, as well as me teaching. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. I don’t think anybody comes here just to be able to pull from, but they also give back. It’s giving and learning at the same time.” 

An Army veteran in his 24th year of service, Brophy said the most rewarding aspect of the Patriot Boot Camp endeavor is the relationship piece.

“We just don’t do education,” Brophy said. “Education is especially important for an entrepreneur who is really the product or service. We have networking, we do team-building exercises and networking exercises in the evenings during the program. That gives it another touch point for veterans to get involved and meet the right contacts.” 

Marine Corps veteran Joe Brammer is an attorney with Frost Brown Todd who has also offered his expertise as a mentor. 

“Entrepreneurship is the most empowering thing there is,” Brammer said. “Helping someone take their dream and vision and build a business that supports themselves and their family is exciting, especially with veterans who’ve struggled in adapting to the civilian world.”

The nature of the military is that one is never alone, Willis said, adding that the boot camp’s mentoring component emphasizes that point. 

“You’ve got a group around you from the time you go into basic training to the time you end your military career,” Willis said. “I think what we’re doing here mimics that. It can be scary creating a business, and I think what this does is create that community to where you have a specialty. We have that brother or sister next to us that has that specialty that we don’t have, so we actually get to lean on them a little bit to help build our business.” 

Northern Kentucky University – R.O.C.K.S 

R – Responsibility

O – Opportunity 

C – Community 

K – Knowledge 

S – Success 

R.O.C.K.S. resonates with Northern Kentucky University African American Studies Initiative Director Greg Moore 20 years after his participation in the initiative. 

“It serves as a support vehicle as Black students navigate their academic and social journey,” Moore said. “Students are invited to come to campus about a week or two before classes start. And they have an opportunity to get acclimated on campus, and then they are paired with peer mentors. We have all these different elements of wrap-around support for students.” 

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Serving as a R.O.C.K.S. mentor has been a positive experience, NKU senior Mohamed Omar said. 

“It was just really nice to be able to academically and emotionally support freshmen throughout their first year (and) something I truly wanted to be a part of,” said Omar, a journalism major with a minor in pre-law. “And I’ve stuck with it ever since my sophomore year.”

NKU R.O.C.K.S. mentor Shayla Hines said mentoring has helped her become more expressive. 

“As a mentor, I’ve learned to be social, because outside of working with R.O.C.K.S., I wasn’t social – I stayed to myself,” said Hines, a senior pursuing a psychology major and a dance minor. “But ever since I became a mentor, I’ve wanted to help people and make sure they actually are social. A closed mouth doesn’t get fed, as we all know.”

R.O.C.K.S. is under the umbrella of African American Student Initiatives, an office that provides programming, as well as support for Black, African American or African-identifying students, officials said.

Graduates cheer during an academic recognition ceremony organized by African American Student Initiatives. Photo provided | Northern Kentucky University African American Initiatives 

“We have four focal points – advocate, build, serve and succeed,” Moore said. 

If students don’t necessarily know how to advocate for themselves, AASI provides a space enabling the office to advocate for the student until they can do so on their own. It also builds community for students through programs, allowing them to have a space where they can learn about one another and actually have that family away from home. 

Serving relates to giving back, officials said, whether it is at the NKU institutional level or the local community level, while succeed refers to students going through a process from beginning to end to support them through completion of their degree program.

“With NKU being a predominantly white institution, I think the most rewarding part for me is being able to have a space that is built and catered to students that look like me … and experience the same things any other Black student may experience during their college experience,” Omar said.

Reflecting upon his time spent in R.O.C.K.S., Moore said the most rewarding element is building lifelong friendships among peers.

“Some of my best friends are friends from college and NKU R.O.C.K.S.,” Moore said. “The fact we are able to come back and still give back to those future alums or those current NKU R.O.C.K.S. students, that just gives me so much fulfillment. To know that we have this huge community of people who have a lot of similar and shared experiences makes it amazing and great.”

Check out the following links for more information about getting involved with some of the mentoring efforts outlined in the story: 

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati

Mentoring Plus

Disabled American Veterans Patriot Boot Camp

By the numbers

Year-to-date, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati has served 765 children in its 13-county service area, including 241 Northern Kentucky children. 

Mentoring Plus is presently serving 42 youths and their families.

It is estimated that more than 2,000 students have participated in the NKU R.O.C.K.S. initiative since its inception during the 1998-99 academic year.

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