Julie Gallagher was describing what a mentor is.
“Somebody who’s older but not your parent,” she explained. Someone, she added, who’s kind of cool.
“I’m kind of cool,” said Julie, 38.
Jamesha Johnson, 14, shot Julie a look that said, Yes, but the truly cool don’t go around announcing it.
That affectionate teenage side-eye is possible only when you have the sort of relationship that Julie and Jamesha have. The pair — mentor and mentee — have known each other since Jamesha was 6.
Armed with a degree in history and political science, Julie came to Washington from Cleveland and worked for a Democratic polling outfit.
“When I first came here, I didn’t want to be one of those people who gets on the Metro and goes to my job and forgets that there’s another part of D.C.,” Julie said.
She volunteered with a group called the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which invites caring adults to visit children living in D.C. homeless shelters. At the time, Jamesha’s family was in a transitional living program in Southeast run by Community of Hope, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
One of the kids Julie met was Jamesha.
“She was very sweet — a little shy at first, which is true of me, as well,” Julie said.
Julie visited every Saturday morning, usually playing with Jamesha and a friend.
“They always wanted to do my hair,” Julie said.
That was fine with her.
“I can always go home and put conditioner in my hair and get all the knots out. If they want me to be their live Barbie doll, go ahead.”
Jamesha’s friend had a mentor. Jamesha — the youngest of five children — didn’t.
At the time, Community of Hope was just starting its mentoring program, with the aim of broadening the horizons of District children growing up in poverty.
“I think that in certain areas of D.C. there are kids who really only see what’s in a five- or 10-block radius of their home,” said Abayea Pelt, Community of Hope’s volunteer and mentor specialist. “Even though you can see almost a whole world in D.C., you wouldn’t know it if you never get on the bus and go across town. I think mentoring allows a child to see more of what the world has to offer.”
Community of Hope has 26 mentor/mentee pairs. They could use more mentors — especially, well, MENtors.
“Our need is mainly for male mentors, for our guys who would like to be matched,” Abayea said.
Mentors undergo a background check and commit to two meetings a month over the course of a year.
“A meeting is just some meaningful interaction,” Abayea said. “Sometimes mentors will go to a museum or to the monuments or the zoo. They might go to the movies or out to lunch. A meeting can also be going to the mentee’s home and playing a board game or helping with homework.”
Julie and Jamesha have done all of those things and more. They especially like getting their nails done. The pair fascinate the nail technicians, who are curious exactly how they are related.
Jamesha is in high school now. Her family is stable. She thinks she might like to be a lawyer or a pharmacist.
Julie thinks she has helped Jamesha. Jamesha has helped Julie, too.
“She’s enriched my life in so many ways,” Julie said. “I don’t see her as being my child — she has a wonderful mother — but I feel like I’m an important part of her life.”
Once, early in their relationship, Jamesha had a question.
“We were walking past Cardozo High School and she said, ‘Miss Julie, how long are you going to be in my life?’
“I said, ‘For as long as you need me.’ I really meant that.”
Not long after meeting Jamesha, Julie changed careers. She left politics, took a job at Community of Hope, then went to graduate school to study clinical mental health counseling. Today she works for the D.C. Department of Human Services, helping youth in foster care.
“I came here to make a change,” Julie said. “I realized I could make more of a change.”
If you’re interested in being a mentor, contact Community of Hope at cohdc.org.
There is another way to support families like Jamesha’s. That’s by making a monetary donation to Community of Hope. Last year, the nonprofit organization helped 411 D.C. families escape homelessness.
We are barely one-third of the way toward our goal of raising $250,000 by Friday. Your gift can get us closer.
Make a tax-deductible donation by going to posthelpinghand.com. To give by mail, send a check, payable to Community of Hope, to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.