Every other Wednesday during the school year, Norcross resident Thomas Taylor visits to eat lunch. Not with colleagues or the school staff, but with a small group of male students.
He's there simply to listen, and sometimes talk, while the kids discuss everything from sports to classes to family life.
"We sit and talk, and it's surprising how young men will open up to an older gentlemen if they don't fear that he's an authority figure," said Taylor.
Taylor goes to Summerour as a volunteer mentor for Gwinnett County Public Schools' Community-Based Mentoring Program. The program aims to help at-risk or struggling African-American middle school boys through mentoring.
With 81 active mentors, the county program can be found currently at 24 of the 26 public middle schools including Pickneyville, Summerour and Lilburn Middle, which are connected to Norcross-area high schools.
Taylor, who also mentors young men at Hopewell Christian Academy, was one of the first volunteers to sign on when the program started three and a half years ago. GCPS Superintendent J. Alvin Woodbanks was appalled at the drop-out rate for African-American males in the area's schools, so he and the board decided to round up mentors in the area.
"We look for volunteers who just want to give back, who just have a passion for helping our young men," said Director of Academic Studies James Rayford, who's head of the GCPS mentoring program. Volunteers come from everywhere such as faith-based organizations, fraternities and community organizations, or even just by word of mouth.
To determine which students qualify for the program, middle school teachers and counselors look at a set of factors based on behavioral and academic struggles. Once the school recommends a student, it's up to the parents to allow their child to participate for the one-year program
Rayford said the volunteers and students are teamed up based on location and similar interests. Taylor mentioned that he and his mentees have engaged in lots of activities, from horseback riding, field trips to CNN and canoing.
But it's more than just liking the same things, though.
"You're basically there to listen and give them support and encouragement," said Taylor.
Taylor explained how well his relationship was with one Summerour eighth grader last year. They participated in many different outings together, and even though the young man moved to Savannah in the middle of the school year, they still stay in contact.
"Even now, he texts me from time to time, which is an indication that something in the program works," said Taylor.
Even though mentoring doesn't have a monetary compensation at all, Taylor finds it very rewarding.
"To watch that young man develop and his grades increase academically and achieve better, it's fulfilling," said Taylor. "When you mentor and you're effective, the attitudes can change, scholastically they can achieve better, and they become better young men, young citizens. That's what we're striving for, because we want to grow young men into good mentors themselves."
To volunteer for the program, contact James Rayford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 678-301-7321.