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February 1, 2003
Column #1,118

"One Heart, One Soul, One Conscience"

     In his State of the Union address this week, President Bush urged applying "the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America. For so many in our country - the homeless, and the fatherless, the addicted - the need is great. Yet there is power, wonder-working power in the goodness, and idealism and faith of the American people."

     He asked Congress to help meet the "needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens - boys and girls trying to grow up without guidance and attention and children who have to go through a prison gate to be hugged by their mom and dad.

     "I propose a $450 million initiative to bring mentors to more than a million disadvantaged junior high students and children of prisoners. Government will support the training and recruiting of mentors, yet it is the men and women of America who will fill the need. One mentor, one person, can change a life forever and I urge you to be that one person."

     Hearing those words, my mind went immediately to Dr. Virgil Gulker, founder of KIDS HOPE, USA. His idea is utterly simple: matching One Child, an at-risk elementary school child who needs a consistent relationship with a caring adult, with One Church suppling volunteers, for One Hour, 60 minutes each week that transform the lives of three people: a child, his church mentor, and a behind-the-scenes prayer partner, at One School, a local public elementary school.

     I was not the only person who thought of Virgil. So did President George Bush! Five days before his State of the Union, a White House aide called to say the President wanted to meet a KIDS HOPE volunteer in Grand Rapids, Michigan the day after speaking to Congress. Virgil wrote a profile of four volunteers. The White House chose Jerry Nienhuis.

     "Jerry Nienhuis is a realtor who wanted the make a difference in the life of a child," Virgil wrote. "But there was a problem. He just did not know how. The KIDS HOPE mentoring program offered by his church gave him the vehicle needed to develop a one-to-one relationship with an at-risk child. Asked how he could possibly find the time to mentor a child, this businessman said, `Some things are so important that you must find the time.'

     "In being a mentor with his friend, Josea, Jerry's passion for this child is so contagious that he is a walking recruitment for the program." In fact, he persuaded his wife and daughter plus several friends to join him in one-to-one relationships with a child. 

     When President Bush arrived in Grand Rapids Wednesday, he walked down the steps of Air Force One, greeted local officials, and turned to walk under the wing where he met Jerry. 

     Later, the President praised Jerry Nienhuis and the KIDS HOPE program which involves 3,800 mentors from 207 churches: "It shows the great entrepreneurial spirit of our country. It is a faith-based program. A call went out from the churches in the area. They said, if you truly love the Almighty, help somebody who hurts. Mentor a child. We can save our society, one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time. I urge you to mentor, just as Jerry has done." 

     Virgil Gulker has some modest reservations about the President's proposal to match volunteers with junior high school students. Before creating KIDS HOPE (616 546-3580), he asked experts what age groups could most benefit from mentoring. He said "The consensus was that it is often too late for high school kids, for middle school kids, it is speculative, but at elementary school, where children are forming their self-esteem and their values, you can have the greatest impact." 

     However, For the Love of Children in Washington D.C. has found that older children in its mentoring program actually gain more, because they are further behind. All gain. The average is close to two grade levels for every 40 hours of mentoring.

     Jerry Nienhuis has mentored for eight years. His first child quickly improved reading skills, but moved away. His current student was disobedient in class and not attentive to the teacher. "I told him, `You have to learn to take NO for an answer.'" The boy, who had gotten his way with his mother, realized he had to change. 

     What does Jerry get out of it? "I'm a real estate salesman. Mondays are not fun. People want to back out of deals. But when I walk into the school on Mondays, I am a hero." 

     No wonder 100 school principals are recruiting churches for KIDS HOPE volunteers. 

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