Every Tuesday evening, Jean Thomas catches a city bus outside his downtown office and heads to Louisville’s South End, where several energetic little boys wait to meet with him.
Thomas is one of Hope Place’s EMPOWER coaches in their youth mentoring program that began last month in the Beechmont community. Although Hope Place is a recent addition to the neighborhood, deepening relationships through family and student coaching has been a goal since its inception.
“Mentors are so important for our youth because they focus on supporting the growth and development of their mentee through relationship and connection,” explains Director Kristy Robison. EMPOWER mentors meet for an hour or two at a set time each week with the same small group of students. Mentors assist with homework, play games, and help the youth set and reach goals, encouraging them along the way.
The day before Thomas was approached and asked to join EMPOWER, he had started contemplating the idea of partnering with a mentoring program. He had begun to feel that mentoring youth was something in which God was leading him to become involved. The timing seemed perfect, so he readily agreed. A background check and training session later, Thomas found himself face-to-face with a small group of elementary school-aged boys, assisting with math problems, teaching lessons on character, and playing table football with carefully folded triangles of paper.
As a Haitian-American and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, with degrees in both economics and political science, Thomas is a strong role model for the kids in his EMPOWER group. A husband and father of three, including his middle son who has special needs and “requires constant and energetic supervision to remain safe,” Thomas serves his mentees with the patience and faithfulness he has developed over a lifetime.
Although any child may apply for a mentor at Hope Place, many of the children come from backgrounds in which they have experienced some type of trauma in their lives: upheaval in their native country, the death of a parent, adoption, etc. Robison’s vision has always included the use of trauma-informed care to serve Hope Place’s population and the EMPOWER groups are central in this.
“Research has shown that connection can actually help rewire a traumatized brain,” she explains. “This is amazing to me because God wired us all for connection. In fact, he sent his son to die for us so we can have connection with him and he created human connection to be healing.”
Thomas agrees. “The reason I have prioritized mentoring in the midst of my own life’s busyness is that I consider smaller, intimate groups to have the greatest potential to influence young people to manage themselves and to treat others with justice.”
The boys in Thomas’ mentoring group don’t understand all of the logic undergirding the EMPOWER program’s foundation just yet. For them, the time each week is simply fun and games with someone who cares about the things that matter most to them.