Mentoring is a family affair in Millsboro

Date Published: 
March 14, 2014

What do mentoring and potato chips have in common? It’s hard to stop at just one.

Toni James learned that as a mentor for three East Millsboro Elementary children from the same family. Her dedication has led to an Exemplary Mentor Award from Connecting Generations.

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Toni James, center, has mentored sisters Quinnlan Adkins, left, and Sarah Adkins, right, since the two were in elementary school.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Toni James, center, has mentored sisters Quinnlan Adkins, left, and Sarah Adkins, right, since the two were in elementary school.Sarah Adkins was in first grade when James arrived in 2008. When her older sister, Quinlan, needed a mentor, James visited the girls together.

Years later, their little brother came along, “and male mentors are really hard to come by,” James said. “I picked him up also.”

With the girls in middle school, and the youngest still in elementary, James couldn’t miss double the work hours to see them all. But the children wanted her around, no matter what. Now she flip-flops every other week to include both schools.

“Anybody can do it. You don’t have to have any special skill set. I don’t have any background in child development or education. I think a lot of people think they don’t have the qualifications,” but James said all you need is to “be reliable and a friend.”

James first got involved when a previous mentor coordinator visited her workplace at NRG Energy to explain how beneficial mentoring can be for kids, and five or six coworkers decided to volunteer.

“This is about reaching out to kids, letting them have a good time while you’re with them,” James said. The youngest is “not a big talker, so we just play or whatever,” going outside if it’s warmer.

The girls just eat lunch together in a private office, so they can hear each other outside of the cafeteria.

Six years later, James said, “I think they see me as more of a friend than a mentor, necessarily. I think that I have a nice relationship with them. It’s hard only having an hour a week.”

Mentors should be consistent, though, since it’s disappointing when they can’t show up.

“The best part of mentoring is it’s fun to interact with the kids, just seeing the way that they get excited when you’re there,” James said. “It’s very rewarding just to see how they appreciate you coming.”

At lunchtime, they push three desks together to form a dining table, the cafeteria roaring just outside the classroom.

What do they talk about?

“Anything!” said Sarah, adding that the best part about “Miss Toni” is just “her being here, ’cause she’s funny.”

Before lunch, they’ve already discussed library books, report cards, makeup and brownies.

And because James now mentors the girls through Big Brothers Big Sisters, they can hang out beyond school, going to the beach, stores and the movies.

“She likes to do anything and everything with us, and she’s lots of fun,” said Quinlan.

They were excited about James’ award.

Sara Lawrence, the East Millsboro guidance counselor and mentoring coordinator, nominated James because of her obvious bond and dedication to the students.

As a new employee, Lawrence said James also helped ease her into the position of mentor coordinator.

“She’s just so even-keel, always smile on her face,” Lawrence said, and even her mentee “always has a smile on his face. She has this great positive energy.”

James also helped led the charge in restocking East Millsboro’s games closet with art supplies, puzzles and games, sponsored by NRG.

Her employer also lets her take an extended lunch hour each week to participate.

“So they’ve been really involved in letting us mentors [go], because that’s one thing they feel is important,” James said.

James, a Laurel resident, came to appreciate East Millsboro so much that she decided to send her own child there.

Another local Exemplary Mentor Award (out of four awarded statewide) went to Joyce Paugh, who followed her mentee to Georgetown Middle School.

“She has built a strong relationship with her mentee and has been a compassionate advocate, as well as positive role model. She has an outstanding commitment to mentoring,” read her nomination.

“They’re both great examples of longevity and dedication to mentoring,” said Rachel Markowitz of Connecting Generations.