Saturday, January 30, 2010

Teen and his mentor visit Washington, D.C., meet President Obama

Ryan Brott, 14, left, and his mentor Andrew Knight, both of Holland-
, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of National Mentor Month White House celebration. Brott and Knight participate in Ottawa County's Journey 4-H program.
One year ago, Ryan Brott, 14, could never in his wildest dreams have imagined he would be shaking the hand of the President of the United States. But on Jan. 20, that's exactly what he got to do, during a National Mentor Month White House celebration.

Ryan, who was a troubled teen, is part of the Ottawa County Journey 4-H Youth Mentoring Program. It is one of many 4-H Youth Development programs and Ottawa County was selected to represent 4-H Youth Mentoring nationwide, joining only 12 other groups.

According to Journey 4-H coordinator Laura Schleede, the Corporation for National and Community Service made a request to 4-H national headquarters for a mentoring match from Ottawa County's Journey 4-H because of its state and national recognition as a Program of Distinction and for receiving the 2009 Michigan Governor's Service Award for Outstanding Mentoring Program.

Contributed photoRyan Brott and his mentor, Andrew Knight, recently went to Washington D.C., where they met President Obama.Officials from the organization's national headquarters contacted Ottawa County's Journey 4-H officials who had the perfect mentoring match: Ryan, and his 25-year-old mentor, Andrew Knight. Both are Holland residents.

On Jan. 19, Schleede, Ryan, and Knight, along with Ryan's mother Dawn and Michigan State University Extension specialist Lisa Bottomley, left for the whirlwind, one-night stay in the nation's capital. It was compliments of the MSU Extension office, which oversees 4-H programs.

"Of course the biggest highlight was being in the White House and seeing Ryan and Knight on stage with the president talking and shaking his hand," Schleede said. "We are very, very honored that our program was among the few selected. It was such a great experience for Ryan, who's worked so hard to turn his life around."

Schleede said she chose Ryan and Knight to represent Journey 4-H at the event because it is an ideal example the positive effects mentoring can have on youth. "They are a great match," she said, "and have been together almost a year."

Journey 4-H partners with the 20th Circuit Court Family Division/Juvenile Services. Each year, probation officers, therapists, and other community agencies refer 25 to 35 candidates for the mentoring program. Mentors commit to spending a minimum of two hours weekly with mentees for a year.

Knight heard about the program when he was attending Grand Rapids Community College studying criminal justice. "I was unemployed and looking for a purpose while trying to find work," he said. "I thought it was a good way to meet people, would look good on my resume, and give me exposure to the juvenile-justice system. It's been incredibly rewarding. Ryan has helped me at least as much as I have helped him."

Knight said 4-H does a tremendous job organizing events that mentor matches can attend. They have included sporting events like Griffins and Whitecaps games, and a favorite of both he and Ryan, an Adventure Race filled with activities that taught outdoor survival training and skills.

4-H covers the expenses of the activities. "They are well organized, and want these experiences to be fun, but also educational and to broaden experiences," Knight said. "It's way more effective at building relationships than just going out for dinner every week."

While Knight said that the absolute highlight of the trip for him was meeting President Obama, he also said there was something else that became incredibly significant to him.

"For the nation to give recognition to mentoring, something that doesn't take that much effort, just a couple hours a week, and to see the incredible difference that makes ... how something so simple is so important and vital to our nation's youth."

Knight said that the mentoring program has had a big influence on his life and is something he will continue to do with Ryan even though his one-year commitment is soon to expire.

Ryan's favorite part of the trip was also being in the White House and meeting President Obama. "It was pretty epic to shake his hand," he said. "I never could have imagined ever going there. This year has made me different."

Ryan said what he liked about the mentoring program is that it gives him something to do and keeps him out of trouble. "I don't get into trouble as often as I used to," he said. "Andrew is there to keep me out of it."

For Ryan, his visit to Washington, D.C. was life changing. "Before the visit, I wanted to go into the military but I didn't know what I wanted to do," he said. "Now I do - I want to be trained in the Secret Service."

Dawn Brott said the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and they were still basking in the afterglow.

"When I was young, I was mentored in the Big Sister program, and I know how important that person was to me and the difference it could make in my son's life," she said.

"Ryan's very independent, and had made some bad choices and he's learned from them. He didn't have a male role model and (Knight) has been a wonderful influence." Brott said her son's view of home life and school has changed and that now he's just short of the honor roll. He also volunteers at his church.

"What I'd really like to say, is that we need more mentors as a society," Dawn Brott said. "It takes more than parents - it takes a community - to raise a child."

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