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Oregon Mentors Luncheon

Oregon Mentors Luncheon
October 27, 2011

Thank you very much, Ken and thank you for this award. It has been a real privilege to come to this event on and off for the past few years and it’s really very gratifying to be here on your Tenth Anniversary to help celebrate an organization that has made a huge difference in the lives of countless children.

I was given something written by my communications staff, and I have thrown it away and I am going to do this off the cuff and they are very nervous when this happens.

So I am going to tell a couple of personal stories. But I want to start by putting mentorship into a little bit larger of a context. You know that Oregon has been dealt about as tough a hand as any state in the nation over the past few years during this great recession.  And one of my top priorities, our top priorities, of course is to try to get our economy back on track. And create one that is strong and internationally competitive and insulated from these boom bust cycles and try to create those family wage jobs that will drive our per capita income back up above the national average through out our state.

And I think the key to doing that lies in our system of public education, because we know that over sixty percent of the jobs that are going to be created in the future are going to require at least an associates degree or a technical certificate. And that to rebuild our economy means to rebuild our education system. And that means making sure that all of our children are ready to learn when they get to school, are able to read when they leave first grade and are reading at level in the third grade.

A system where we are driving down the drop out rates and increasing the graduation rates. Where all of our high school graduates have the capacity to take post-secondary education with out remediation. And where at least forty percent of our students are seeking post secondary education and training, and another forty percent are attaining at least a baccalaureate degree or higher.

Giving children the platform for educational success is the foundation for achieving that vision, and successful mentoring is a key to building that platform. Because we know, and I think the Children’s Institute that Ken is involved with know as well as anyone else that far too many of our kids lack a family and community supports for these  strong and independent learners.

And many of those kids come into our school system with a huge achievement gap and many of them never recover from it. Lost to our system of social dependency or to our criminal justice system.

What a waste of human potential, what a waste of human capital, and what a loss to our society.  Mentoring is the powerful tool to make sure that that doesn’t happen.  At its core, mentoring is pretty simple: it involves a trusting relationship between a young person and a caring adult. Mentoring can change lives and mentoring can save lives.

I want to tell you a little story about how mentoring made a difference in my career path.

When I was 15, we moved to Eugene from Hanover, New Hampshire, where my father had a two-year stint at Dartmouth College, and I came from Hanover that had 200 people in the entire high school to South Eugene High School that had about twice as many kids, just in the sophomore class.

I left a group of close friends, I didn’t know anybody, I was lonely and I was widely viewed in the terminology of the day as a “nerd.” I had no interest in going to college – I viewed high school as something that you had to get through, like pulling a bad tooth. Was uninspired to learn and a very poor student.

Then I met a guy named Ralph Hustus who was a retired biology professor from the University of Oregon.  And he had something called, a little research lab called the mouse house that was on the north edge of campus. And he invited me to come visit him after school, which I started doing and then I started going there on the weekends and he taught me small animal surgery and he stimulated an interest in biology, and he convinced me to enter the OMSI Northwest Science Fair. Which I did, and my project was something called a perfusion apparatus, that allowed one to study isolated organs by keeping them alive outside the body. My first project involved a kidney that I borrowed from my sisters rabbit Clyde, which I removed after anesthetizing the poor beast.

Now I want to let everyone know, particularly Sharon Harmon out at the Humane Society, that Clyde did just fine, he lived another two years, which is a ripe old age for a rabbit, which is about the same amount of time it took me to heal the relationship with my younger sister. But Clyde’s newly liberated kidney found its way into my profusion apparatus, which was a feat made possible by a Rube Goldberg like that perfused this warm oxidized blood to Clyde’s kidney. And I constructed this machine in my parents basement using a wide range of parts including an old washing machine motor and a pneumatic doorstop, various types of chemical glassware, rubber tubing, a water pump and a heater from a tropical fish tank.

Now comes the good part.

For the blood I would venture out in the early morning hours to the slaughterhouse out in West Eugene, wait for the unfortunate cow to meet its end and rush in with an Erlenmeyer flask and collect my blood. Put penicillin a little anti-coagulant.

Now I know what you are thinking. If only we had known this last November.

In any event, this collection routine caused me to be late for school and I used to make a blood spattered arrival at first class math period, which cemented my reputation as a “nerd” and possibly a dangerous one. But, it also won me first place in the OMSI Northwest Science Fair in 1965. It gave me a lifelong interest in biology, I went to the University of Oregon and became a straight A student, I transferred to Dartmouth, became interested in medicine and ended up on a completely different career path than I wouldn’t have done otherwise, and all because a kindly retired biology professor reached out to a lonely, confused teenager.

That’s the power I think of mentoring. Mentorship not only can change the course of lives, it can truly save lives. I want to just close with a passage from one of my favorite childhood books which to me really captures the magic of mentoring. This is a passage from the Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

“He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.  All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl chatter and bubble.  The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.  By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

What a lovely piece of writing. As someone who has spent most of his life on, in, and near rivers – that is the most amazingly accurate description of a river that I have ever read. But the suspension of belief that is necessary to fully appreciate this description is huge – a river, after all, is arguably an inanimate object and this description comes to us through the eyes of a Mole – a Mole by the way whose best friend is a Water Rat – and who has adventures with a Badger and a pompous Toad –who by the way can drive.

The point is, that if Grahame had lacked the capacity to imagine, we would never have met these delightful creatures.  And if we were not willing to suspend our belief in the way things are, we would not be able to appreciate fully the artistry in that book.

And to me it is this capacity to dream, and this capacity to imagine that allows children to see a different future for themselves, and to see a different world and a different possibility than the one they find themselves trapped in. And I think that is exactly what mentoring does. A mentor gives a child the capacity to imagine a world of possibility, and to imagine being something else, being anything else. And then provides the guidance to get them there.

So today we have 54,000 young Oregonians who have a mentor, but there are about 146,000 children who still need a mentor. When you consider that when this organization started a decade ago we were serving 1 out of 10 kids who needed a mentor, and today we are serving 4 out of 10 kids, you can recognize that is certainly a significant accomplishment and it is certainly something to celebrate today, but it is clearly not enough. For every dollar you invest in mentoring, we save 3 to 7 dollars downstream on avoided costs in the criminal justice system, in avoided costs in our social support system, but more importantly we save a child. So please give generously today to the Oregon Mentoring Program. Mentoring at the end of the day is not rocket science, but it is effective.

Thank you very much.


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