When they met for the first time at a local coffee shop last winter, Betsy Bodker and Kiki both seemed to be guarding their expectations for each other.
Kiki, an 8-year-old from Southfield who has four brothers and sisters, shyly held on to her mother's arm as they spoke. Betsy, 45, of Pleasant Ridge, simply hoped that the two could connect in somewhat of the terrific way that she does with her three neices.
Instead, they found deep, unique and valuable friendship — exactly what the Mentor Connection program that put them together hopes to achieve.
"I did not expect to have the warmth for this little girl and the desire to be with her as much as I do," Bodker said. "I used to say that I could only see her twice per month 2-4 hours every time, but now we're together a lot more than that."
Kiki, whose last name is withheld from this story, shared the sentiment: "We made a list of everything we want to do together. We always have a good time and go through the list and do something together."
Watching a mentor relationship blossom at such speed since the two first met in March is notable but not exceptional for the non-sectarian program through Jewish Family Service (JFS). Since 2005, Mentor Connection has impacted the lives of over 500 youth in need of adult support.
For Bodker, a human resources professional who is not a parent, it's a fun way to give back while unwinding from a 40-hour-plus work-week. The two have bonded over their shared love of the butterflies in the Detroit Zoo atrium, baking and "just hanging out."
"We write checks to charity and that feels good but this is an opportunity to actually see and do something on a regular basis and feel really good about it," Bodker said. "I feel so good about my abilty to give back to someone who does appreciate it and who needs it. I can see it in her and the smile in her face."
For Kiki, it's a fun way to get attention and stimulation in a way that her home life just can't always provide. She's all about a great story and loves acting it out, from doing athletic gymnastics moves in the living room to taking pictures and videos whenever possible.
They received autographs from the Detroit Tigers after Kiki's first game at Comerica Park, helped elderly neighbors with their yardwork and partied at the Jeepers Creepers amusement park.
"Supportive mentoring relationships increase self-esteem, encourage academic achievement, improve social skills and provide career exploration opportunities in order to help young peope lead successful, healthy lives," according to JFS organizers.
"The mentor they are matched with is a friend, a confidant and someone who can be trusted. Our goal at Jewish Family Services, Mentor Connection, is to ensure than any child who wants a mentor in Oakland County is given the opportunity to be matched with one."
Not only does Kiki say that she can't see herself ending her new friendship, she also has hopes of recruiting her twin brother into the fold.
However, finding a mentor to match every child has become a more-difficult job than it once was. Mentor Connection asks for a minimum of four hours per month of time from its volunteers and children's families, which organizers say can be seen as too much in today's tough economic climate.
"From initial concern about getting in the required hours with a busy work and travel schedule, I not only do not count the hours nor worry about meeting the requirement," said Bodker. "I try to find ways to see her more and more often ... this evolution seemed so natural."
According to organizers, the wait list has lately been set at around 60 children in Oakland County who are characterized as "at-risk" — the vast majority coming from the home of single parent, as in Kiki's case, or grandparent, relative, or foster-care parent.
Despite the shortage of mentors, potential candidates are still screened thoroughly to make sure that their expectations are appropriate, that their background makes a good match and that they've shown motivation to create a lasting relationship.
She's a huge part of my life. All of my friends and family know about her," Bodker said. "She’s a happy kid. I love her spirit of wanting to do fun things together."
Make a difference, mentor a youth
JFS will host current mentors at a special event Wednesday, Jan. 23 to share their experiences in the program and describe the impact their mentoring relationship has had on their mentee. The event starts at 7 p.m. at Jewish Family Service (6555 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield).