By Shawn Kirkpatrick
“We are giving the children hope,” said Project Uplift Coordinator Chris Nunn. “Project Uplift is a preventative program, to help children make good decisions, excel in school and feel good about themselves – even though they may be born into a single parent home, or their mom or dad are in jail and being raised by their grandmother. Despite all that, we want them to know you can still make it and do great things with your life.”
The heart of the program is the volunteer mentors, who are mostly students at Auburn University. “We recruit countywide, trying to attract positive male and female role models to be mentors to the children in our program,” Nunn said. “Right now we have 300 to 400 children in the program and only 200 mentor volunteers. We have a great need for mentors in our program.”
The children in the program are 5 to 12 years old and all live in Lee County. They are referred to the program by their families, juvenile court and social workers. The child can stay in the program as long as the mentors that have chosen them want to remain in the program.
“Volunteers give two full semesters, or a year commitment to the program. Many of our mentors choose two to three kids from one family, or they’ll pair two families together depending on their comfort levels,” Nunn added. “They spend two to three hours a week with their kids. They do everything from helping with homework, to making cookies or brownies, to throwing around the football. The sky is the limit.”
Many mentors continue their relationship with the children after they have graduated and the kids have aged out of the program. Project Uplift Mentor Maggie Mitchell has graduated from AU and is still helping her two children.
“Once I got to Auburn, I knew I wanted to sign up. It has been absolutely the most amazing thing I have done,” Mitchell said. “When I first met them, they were both just in foster care and struggling with their lives. When I first met Denise, she was struggling at school, not making good grades. She got in trouble every day. Seeing the outcome for them, after showing them love, has been the best part about it.”
Mitchell said Denise, now 9, has just started Girl Scouts and is in the gifted program at her school. She was adopted by her foster parents.
Markel is now 13. He is back living with his biological mother and just signed up for baseball. Mitchell said it was a rocky start for Markel.
“He was suspended every year in the second, third and fourth grade. We set up a reward system. If he didn’t get suspended, he could go home with me to see my parents on the weekend,” Mitchell explained. “Markel knows I expect more from him. He strives to do his best. He shows me his good grades, and he is excited about it.”
Markel has aged out of the program, but since Mitchell is still paired with him, he can stay in it until she stops, which she says she will never do. “They know I’m coming back and will get them every week. They’re my family now. It has made a difference in my life. It’s shown me the things that I take for granted.”
Nunn explained that serving children and families is his passion.
“Seeing kids and families survive through crisis, it makes me complete. Working with the juvenile system and seeing kids come in so young and heading right into the penal system, I thought there has to be a way for me to intervene in their lives early.”
Nunn added that the Lee County community has been wonderful and has a lot of resources for families.
“We want the kids to know that this is a city and a community that loves and adores you. I love seeing kids succeed and excel. Our program is a phenomenal program, and the impact it’s made on the lives of children is awesome.”
There are more than 100 kids on the waiting list to get into the program. Nunn said they are in dire need of volunteers, and anyone that is 19 years of age and older can mentor.
The next training session for volunteer mentors is April 15 from 3-7 p.m. at Cary Hall’s Auditorium 158 on the Auburn campus. Anyone who is interested in the program can show up at the training. For more information on Project Uplift, visit auburn.edu/projectuplift.