It’s a sunny spring afternoon. Trees are finally in full foliage, the air is crisp and clean from an (ongoing!) onslaught of rain, and in the basement of the chapel at Warren Wilson College, scattered balloons and a table of watermelon and pizza mark the farewell celebration for the 2016/17 Kids On Campus program.
Administered through Warren Wilson’s Center for Community Engagement, Kids on Campus has been connecting local youth to engaging on-campus activities with Warren Wilson college students since 1999.
For most of this year’s KOC matches, today’s farewell is only for the summer time—they’ll have the opportunity to continue their mentoring relationship in future years. But for graduating senior Emily Fox, today is the final match activity for herself and her Little Sister of two years.
“I just turned in my capstone this morning,” says Emily smiling, adding that she plans on maintaining a relationship with Harmony, at least by phone, in the coming months.
“Harmony’s funny—but she’s also super responsible,” says Emily, “She always checks in with me and tells me about any homework she has to do, ready to get that out of the way so we can go do fun stuff.”
Since August of 2015, Emily and Harmony have been hanging out for three hours every Tuesday afternoon of the school year. They always start with homework but afterward, they get to explore the vast network of forests and fields of the over 1100 acre campus—which includes a working farm on which lives one of Harmony’s favorite campus attractions: a cow named Pepper.
“I didn’t expect I was going to have this much fun here,” says Harmony, “I thought it was going to be, like, just doing homework and then having fun for, like, a half hour. But it’s way more fun than I thought it would be.”
Hosting this program on campus doesn’t just make it easy for college kids to get involved in enduring mentor relationships—it also offers a valuable opportunity for kids to be immersed in an environment of higher learning—which connects them with a clearer vision and inspiration for how they too can pursue college. It also helps mentees build a deeper understanding of what higher education has to offer.
“I want to grow up and I want to come to school here,” says Harmony, adding that if KOC is still in operation at that time, she wants to become a volunteer so that she can help kids to grow in the same way Emily has helped her.
Like most KOC afternoons, today starts out with each of the six Bigs linking up with their Little to assist them with homework. But once they’re finished—a host of fun games awaits them, including a tug-of-war, a relay race and paint twister to name a few.
Senior Brian Wuertz has participated in the KOC program for the past two years, mentoring his Little Brother, Chris, who’s now in the fifth grade. When he was growing up, Brian explains that he didn’t have many—if any—male role models in his life. No one to talk to about his problems, to received support from, or just to be with.
“I’m just excited to see Christopher every week…It feels like this part of the day, this part of the week is really important—like I’m doing something worthwhile,” he says.
Brian’s been matched with Chris for two full school years, and after he graduates this fall, the two plan on continuing their match in Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Community-Based Program.
“Brian is a really nice guy. He always listens whenever I want to talk to him, “says Chris, explaining that he loves this program because there are no other kids in his neighborhood to hang out with.
“We mostly just go around doing whatever we can think of,” he says, “We went to a science lab here on campus last week. They were making a certain type of bacteria glow—to where you could actually see them!”
Brian chuckles, remembering that afternoon.
“You’re really really clever,” he says to Chris, “You’re always interested in talking ab out how things work, like the other week when the van drove by making a weird sound, you turned to me and asked: ‘What do you think is wrong with the van? How do you think we could fix that?’—and then you came up with all sorts of ideas about it. You’re also really smart,” he says.
These complementary words from his mentor mean a lot to Chris—you can tell. Even though he bashfully toes at the ground as Brian shares them, the praise brings a smile to Chris’ lips—which may not be a huge show of emotion in the moment, but might just be the encouragement he needs to make it through the next big challenge he faces in life or to expand his future aspirations.
It’s time for the tug-of-war and the six matches are splitting into “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” teams. As it turns out, the tug-o-war ends badly for the gentlemen. But—to be fair—they were outnumbered, and the one mentor was compromised with a wrist brace.
Still, regardless of who smears whom, every competition over the course of the afternoon poses an opportunity to practice sportsmanship, and with only a few outlying pouts and jeers, the group agrees that the best way to respond to both winning and losing is: graciously.
After the games, there’s plenty of time for free-play. Everyone scatters.
Meric flies off on his scooter toward the main campus and his Big Brother Bobby rushes to start up his moped and zoom after in pursuit. Ethan and Conrad disappear between a row of hedges (a secret passageway, I’m told) to balance along a stone wall, then—once joined by their Bigs—they climb en masse into a beautiful old Dogwood tree and discuss Assassins Creed at length. Harmony and Emily sit down at a table inside, abundant in craft supplies, to decorate frames that will house photos of them throughout the year which they’ll take home as keepsakes.
At KOC, Chris, Harmony, Ethan, Conrad, Meric and Jaycee are full of laughter and smiles. Here, they feel seen and valued for their uniqueness. But it isn’t only they who benefit from these relationships—the mentors grow tremendously and learn from the mentees as well.“One way that I’ve really grown as a result of this relationship is in the ability to talk about my own feelings—and that’s something that we don’t really value as a society: men talking about their feelings,” says Brian.
“Just having a relationship like this makes that happen—and there are a lot of people who don’t have that. And so…it’s something that we can do…” he says, turning to Chris, “to be brothers.”