Stories from our 2016 Mentor of the Year

At Mentor Appreciation Night this fall, we honored Richard Cohen with our Mentor of the Year award. Over the past 4+ years, Richard has been an exceptional mentor for four young adults. We are grateful for Richard’s passion for and contribution to the lives of his mentees. When accepting the award, Richard highlighted the times spent with his mentees and shared what makes the experience of mentoring so special for him:

[Lightly edited for clarity]

About 25 years ago, my wife Judith and I lived in New York State. And Judith was working in a high school, I was working alone as a woodworker.

For the high school, Judith instituted a community service program. One of the programs that she created was for a high school class that goes into a psychiatric hospital once a week. It was a tremendous success. The kids loved it and the patients loved it too. And the kids wrote papers about it and it really inspired me to see what might be available in doing this kind of thing.

And once I started, it became very clear to me that there is more love, friendship, fulfillment, interest, fun, and all the best stuff in life through doing this stuff. So, I wanted to continue to do it and I don’t want to stop. I hope the people I interacted with got out of it as much as I did.

I do want to highlight just briefly each of the four mentees I’ve had, because they are real highlights for me to experience, being with them.

So, the first one was a young man named Alex. Before we were matched, I remember Steve suggesting I should become Alex’s mentor because we both like Rock and Roll, and that maybe I could relate to that.

So, Alex and I met and I learned that he had met Ringo Star through Make-A-Wish. And his bedroom walls were plastered with his music posters. We decided that we would get together and try playing music and singing songs. And I’m a rudimentary guitar player, and the only feedback I got was from Judith was from the other room, “You have to tune it first!”

So I went very excitedly to meet Alex at the Ivy Street School, and the first day, we agreed to meet at this time, they said Alex couldn’t see me. And the next three times I went, that same thing happened each time. I was getting a little discouraged.

And then Alex’s mother got a hold of me. A mother’s love is the strongest power on earth. And she basically explained to me how he had had brain cancer as a child. She also told me that Alex had Tourette’s and had depression and migraines daily, and was always exhausted from his medication.

Thankfully, I was patient because and we got to the point where we could get together. Some days he could do 15 minutes or whatever, and that was that.

And the day that I will always remember is when he found his voice. He was singing a few songs, and then he got very serious. And he said, “Richard? Do you think we could do Wild Thing?” So I started off, dun dun dun dun dun. And he goes, “Wild Thing!” He belts it out.

And as he is doing that, the wonderful woman who runs the school, walks into the room and goes, “You make my heart sing!” And it was so amazing, we were trying to do this, and it was frustrating, and there’s the three of us celebrating, and that kind of stuff is very cool when it happens.

I was very sad when Alex moved away, but then Steve hooked me up with somebody else. He knew I was a woodworker, and had somebody who was also into woodworking. Andrew’s grandfather, who he dearly loved had passed away, was a very talented furniture maker and had a home shop. So Andrew and I had a chance to study and appreciate his grandpa’s work, and I think it helped him get people through bad times. Andrew’s mom once asked me what it’s like woodworking with Andrew. If you don’t know Andrew, you would think this is an odd thing, but if you know him, you understand exactly. I said, he’s a very loving guy. That’s Andrew — you spend an hour with him and you feel differently. So it’s a new experience of woodworking.

It is interesting the word partnership in this thing. But another component to being Andrew’s mentor was that, Carl and Jennie, his folks, are the most world class parents and have supported me in every way, being with Andrew, understanding Andrew, and I know that they and Andrew will be friends forever, I hope.

And one other thing: Andrew loves PYD and has participated in all kinds of stuff here. And I always thought he would make a sensational mentor. So look out for him.

And then there is Jake.

Steve told me there was this guy who was, among other things, interested in music and I thought maybe we would play music together. It was interesting, when I first met Jake, it was not easy to understand him. But, he was, from the get go, one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Jake has non-verbal learning disorder of sorts which caused him a lot of anxiety and frustration. And the thrill of being with him is that I’ve seen the responsibilities he has taken upon himself and how much he’s grown. Understandably, initially he was very concerned about his disability. Could he find medical help? Counseling help? But, now he talks about things like meditation and prayer and even things like self-acceptance.

So frankly, I’m in awe of you, Jake, and how you’ve hung in there. And I look forward every week to being with you and I learn something new each time.

But the last match I wanted to talk about is current and, it’s kind of challenging. It is with a young man who really has not had any family or education, either. But he’s a very sweet person, and before we were matched, Steve explained to me that his interests were rap music, which I’m not too conversant with, and basketball, which I used to love to play 55 years ago. So, I told Steve, you know, you better mention to him that I’m 70 years old so that, when we get together, he’s not disappointed if an old man shows up.

So anyhow, I met with Juan and I explained I don’t play ball anymore, but we would go for a walk, get a slice of pizza, and see where it all went.

So the next week, I go to meet Juan and I was real happy to see that he was at the door to let me in. And he happened to be holding a basketball.

So, we went on our walk and then went down the street and over to a park, and next thing you know, we’re on a basketball court. It was one of the hottest days of the year, but we shot baskets for an hour. And for the next 8 weeks, I couldn’t wait to play.

So he actually became my mentee, without even saying a word to me, or without even knowing he did it. He showed me I had a disability called “I can’t because I’m too old.”

He taught me to not play that card.

Since Juan hopes to become a chef, when the weather got bad, we made some pizza and some cookies. The guys in Juan’s house who were all sort of, like, big football sized guys, but they appreciated the food we make a lot. Juan has become very popular.

But I’m just so grateful to be a part of an organization like this and have people like that to help me, and it’s a partnership, and I want to thank you.