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Along for the ride: Volunteers help youngsters participate in programs

Sunday, November 11, 2007

(Photo)
Chris Word fills out a YMCA of Southeast Missouri basketball program application with the help of Sue Guess.
SIKESTON -- For several years, Garry Warner wanted to get involved with mentoring youth in the Sikeston area.

After much searching and prayer, he finally found what he was looking for three years ago. It was then that Sue Guess, who then worked as a Family Services liaison with Lee Hunter Elementary School, was looking for volunteers to reach out to under-privileged children.

The two teamed up and started a mentoring program between members of the Kiwanis club, to which Warner belonged, and those youth who wanted to play in YMCA youth football and basketball leagues, but whose parents couldn't provide the transportation or afford the enrollment fee. Guess handpicked the students, based on their behavior and whether she thought they would benefit.

"There's a huge need in this community -- there's lots of kids in single-parent or low-income households," said Warner. "Those types of families need support, especially where their children are concerned."

Guess agreed, and recalled how the idea for the program came about. "I had a mother say to me 'I have a request to make of you. In the Sunset area, a lot of us single parents don't have cars and we can't take our children to play sports, we don't have the money for it and our children do not have the opportunities the other children do because we're economically strapped,'" Guess said. The mother also spoke of the influence people on the street had over children, and how they wanted to keep their children from being attracted by a bad influence.

"Those statements stayed with me."

What began as a personal mission of Warner's became the mission of other Kiwanis members.

"We'd usually take the kids to and from their games and practices and stay if our schedules permit," Warner said. "And we'd try to spend some time with them -- maybe get them a soda or something."

For the most part, the volunteers involved just wanted to set a good example and talk to the children about school, home and their lives.

And the response was huge, with more children who wanted to be a part of the program than volunteers. Guess said one of the children made a self-

referral to the Kiwanis to be a part of the program.

"I had kids come almost every day to beg me to please get them in," Guess said.

She and the others involved spoke of its great rewards to the students involved.

"You can just really tell the impact it has made on the kids," said Chris Hodgkiss, program director at the YMCA. "A couple of the kids this year were really good athletes, and this was the first youth sport they'd ever participated in, so I was really excited to get them out there and see them play a sport."

Guess agreed. "We feel like we are simply grooming them for the high school program." She noted that if the students become involved in sports and are on their high school teams, they won't be so likely to be lured on the streets or want to quit school.

There was a big change in the self-esteem and behavior of the children once they got involved, too. "Their grades would change because they felt so good about themselves," Guess said.

"And the only thing that changed in their life was just some volunteers," Warner added.

Beatrice Patterson's 12-year-old grandson, Alex, has been a part of the program since it began three years ago.

Patterson said Alex wouldn't have been able to participate in the sports had it not been for Warner providing the transportation. "I didn't want him to go anywhere where there wasn't anyone watching him," she said. At the time, Alex lived with her and she had her hands full otherwise.

"I think Mr. Garry is a good role model for the boys because he teaches them the right thing," Patterson said. "I think (Warner) made a very good impression on him -- sometimes it takes a man to make a good impression on a boy."

Warner recalled his experience with a different child, whom he asked not to be named. "When we first met, he just sat on the other side of

the car and didn't have much to say," he said. "But absolute miracles

occurred in that year I gave him rides."

Warner took him to flag football and basketball season. After the

final basketball game, Warner took the child home, who thanked him

before getting out of the car. After the child reached his front door,

he turned around and walked back to the car.

"He wrapped his arms around me and said 'this was the greatest day of

my life,'" Warner said. "It was the greatest day of my life, too.

There's not anything I cherish as much as that hug."

Guess said that reaction is typical of the Kiwanis who volunteer.

"They sign up as a volunteer to help the children, and they end up

getting as much out of it as the children," she said.

The YMCA youth basketball season will begin in December. Anyone who is

interested in getting involved and providing transportation for youth

athletes can call Gary Warner at 471-7999 or 472-4061. He said "the

pay is the absolute best pay in the world."