Carrying on a Legacy of Service

Larry Nagengast

, Community

Mike Clark’s friends are keeping his spirit alive with a mentoring program at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware

As Delaware athletes go, Mike Clark ranked among the best.

“An absolute animal in the triathlon” is how longtime friend Pete Cloud remembers him.

Over three decades Clark excelled in individual competitions, running four times in the Boston Marathon and in more than two dozen marathons.

In 1984, in peak condition at the age of 27, he qualified for the Iron Man World Championships in Hawaii—a grueling triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2-mile run. He would compete in a second Iron Man in Hawaii in 2007, when he was 50.

Just a few months later, in early 2008, he died, a victim of complications from surgery for a sports hernia.

Mike Clark’s athletic legacy was ensured in 2012 through his election to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame, but his friends chose to keep his spirit alive in a way that goes beyond plaques and photographs.

Just months after his death, they created the Mike Clark Legacy Foundation and, through that nonprofit organization, established Mike’s TEAM, a mentoring program now operating at three branches of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, where Clark worked in multiple roles for 27 years.

Serving 150 Youngsters

They have built what had been a small mentoring program at the Fraim Boys & Girls Club on South Union Street in Wilmington into one that serves more than 150 youngsters a year. The program is spearheaded by about 30 adult mentors who volunteer throughout the school year and a comparable number of students from Wilmington Friends and Tower Hill schools who serve for shorter periods.

Kryshwn with mentor Pete Cloud, who received an award for his service. Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware

“When we started out, we didn’t know what we were doing. We thought we’d just show up and talk to the kids for an hour,” says Cloud, 76, a foundation founder and one of the original mentors. “But we’ve raised over $1 million so far, we have three centers and we’ve added group mentoring with the high school kids.”

The fundraising, much of it through the annual Mike Clark Memorial Ride bicycling event, has helped pay for the purchase of computers and other tech equipment at Fraim as well as retrofitting a portion of the center to include individual mentoring rooms and space for group activities.

Sarah Hutton, Mike TEAM director at the Boys & Girls Club, explains how the program is set up: 30 youths, mostly from third to eighth grade, receive an hour of one-on-one mentoring at Fraim during the school year, and younger kids participate in group mentoring sessions at the H. Fletcher Brown Club in Wilmington (with mentors from Wilmington Friends) and at the club in New Castle (with Tower Hill mentors).

“It has been terrific. It sounds completely trite, but I get so much out of it,” says Julie Russ, 38, of Wilmington, who just finished her sixth year of mentoring DJ, a 14-year-old from Wilmington who will be entering high school in September.

A Focus on Academics

“We connect on a person-to-person level, and we built a relationship where he seems comfortable,” she says.

Mentors with Mike’s TEAM focus on academics, helping with homework and keeping track of their grades, Cloud says.

“Every time we met, he checked my grades,” says Kyshwn, a 14-year-old mentored last year by Cloud. Besides helping with his school work and encouraging him to participate in sports, Cloud also made important introductions for Kyshwn, opening the door for him as he applied to several private high schools (but not the one he will be attending this fall).

The focus on academics includes finding creative ways to address weaknesses the students need to overcome.

“When I started with DJ, he had a lot of trouble with multiplication,” Russ recalls. “So we would play the card game War, and when we placed our cards down on the table, DJ would have to multiply the numbers on the cards together. I tried to make the school challenges fun.”

“I wasn’t big on learning about history, but she always helped me prepare for my big tests,” DJ says. “And she helped with my English skills too.”

And Russ, like some other mentors, makes it a point to attend DJ’s athletic events whenever her schedule permits. (All the mentoring in the program is done on site, Hutton says, so mentors must receive permission from a youth’s parent or guardian to attend activities in which the youth participates at other locations.)

Julie Russ, with her mentee DJ, also was honored. Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware

Playing games that challenge the mind is part of many mentoring sessions. Chess is a favorite for both Cloud and Kyshwn and Russ and DJ. Both mentors say they’re highly competitive, and give no quarter to their younger charges, but age and experience matter little in the end.

“He’s as smart as I am, maybe smarter,” Cloud says of Kyshwn.

“I’ve never let him win a game of anything, whether it’s chess or Connect Four,” Russ says, “but nine times out of ten, DJ beats me.”

“We’re encouraging academics, helping kids with setting their goals and learning how to achieve them, and figuring out how we can help them,” says Tom Harrigan, 66, of Wilmington. Harrigan has mentored two youths at Fraim. He first met for four years with a girl who is now a junior in high school. His current mentee is a boy who is entering seventh grade.

“It’s an opportunity for them to ask an adult something they’re not comfortable asking other adults about,” he says, “and we try to share with the kids a view of life that they might not be getting anywhere else.”

Good Program for Beginning Mentors

While many of the Mike’s TEAM mentors joined the program because they had a connection to Clark or the foundation, Hutton says there’s a lot of diversity among program participants, ranging from graduate students to retirees like Cloud who are part of the 70-plus demographic.

“It’s a good program for people who want to get involved in mentoring but might not be ready to do it on their own,” Hutton says.

That’s because the regular commitment is only one hour a week, and it’s always at the same time (unless special events are scheduled) and at the same location. In addition, Ashley Thomas, the program coordinator at Fraim, helps Hutton match mentors and mentees according to interests, skills and personalities, and Thomas develops individualized weekly programming based on each youth’s academic needs, so mentors don’t have the stress associated with developing lesson plans for each session.

During the year, Thomas and Hutton plan several academic-related special events, usually involving games, experiments or activities related to STEAM topics (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).

At the group mentoring sites, programming is slightly different since high school volunteers from Wilmington Friends and Tower Hill are working with children who are under 12 years old, Hutton says. Four or five teen mentors will work with a group of up to 20 students, often doing science experiments and other activities involving teamwork.

Interestingly, Hutton says, when the young participants were surveyed this spring about what was most meaningful about the program, many mentioned not academics but focused instead on social-emotional themes, how the mentors helped them control their anger or get along better with others. “That shows that they’re getting a lot out of it on a deeper level,” she says.

Students participating in the mentoring program span the spectrum of academic skills—from straight-A students to those who are performing below grade level, Hutton says. “Some need extra help, and some need individualized attention to keep them challenged.”

While the mentors do monitor grades and provide academic support, the program cannot claim credit for any improvements in students’ grades. “Many of the kids are also getting tutoring at the clubs, so we can’t attribute gains directly to mentors,” she says.

Even so, as they get to know the kids better, the mentors realize they’re making an impression.

“It’s the simple stuff, like they’re excited to see you, when they say, ‘Hey, Mr. Tom, how are you doing?’” Harrigan says. “We’re influencing kids, encouraging them to be all they can be.”

To Volunteer for Mike’s TEAM

Volunteers for Mike’s TEAM (the letters stand for Teaching Excellence by Academic Mentoring) serve for one hour a week, in the afternoon or early evening, throughout the school year, as a mentor to a student member at one of three units of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware—Fraim or Fletcher Brown in Wilmington, or the New Castle branch. Many mentoring partnerships last for several years.

To learn more about the program, contact Sarah Hutton at the Fraim Boys & Girls Club, 655-4591 or shutton@bgclubs.org.

PEDAL FOR A PURPOSE

The 11th annual Mike Clark Memorial Ride, the primary fundraiser for the Mike Clark Legacy Foundation, pushes off Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 a.m. from Alexis I. du Pont High School in Greenville. Riders have their choice of a pair of gentle Ride the Rollers courses, at 25 and 50 miles, or the demanding Conquer the Hills courses, at 100 kilometers and 80 miles, traversing up to 15 of the most challenging hills in scenic areas of New Castle and Chester counties.

Rest stops along the route include the Auburn Heights Preserve and Northbrook Orchards.

Registration is $35 until Aug. 9 and $45 on race day. All participants will receive a t-shirt.

More information is available at mclf.org/events. Online registration is available at BikeReg.com.

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