Mentors needed for children of the incarcerated

John Messenheimer said he would never have known how much fun assembling a basketball hoop could be, were it not for the 10-year-old boy sitting next to him, anxiously awaiting the hoop’s completion.

“I can be pretty theological and abstract – always looking for the difficult questions, the difficult answers – but he helps me keep it simple,” said Messenheimer, who mentors the boy through Catholic Charities’ Cornerstone Kids initiative, which matches responsible adult mentors to boys and girls aged 4 to 17 who have one or both parents incarcerated.

Cornerstone’s male and female mentors, who can be single like Messenheimer, or married with children of their own, are asked to spend at least four hours a month with their mentees in the recreational or social settings of their choice. All mentors are expected to fulfill a minimum one-year commitment, with men matched with boys and women with girls.

“Our goal is to place a responsible adult in the child’s life, with the hope that that adult will become a friend to help that child build self-esteem and confidence in himself,” said Leo Jackson, who has directed Cornerstone Kids out of Catholic Charities’ Office of Justice and Peace since 2008.

“I feel great compassion for these children because they are good kids just looking for someone to care for them, love them, cherish them, value them.” Jackson said.

Calling all men and women

Jackson said an ongoing challenge is to increase mentor participation in the program, which currently has 11 mentor-mentee pairs. Currently there is a backlog of 27 children still awaiting a mentor.

Both men and women mentors are very much needed by the program, but for some reason, Jackson is having a difficult time recruiting male mentors.

“I think a lot of men think of mentoring as (becoming) a substitute father, and that’s not what it is,” Jackson said.  “The mentor’s role is to be a friend, an adult advisor and companion – someone who comes into a young person’s life and provide some of the needs left by the absence of the father: companionship, friendship, helping the child process some of the things that are difficult for him to understand.”

Mentors feel blessed

Messenheimer is uniquely positioned to see the impact of the program, given his role as the archdiocese’s director of Prison Ministry.

“Cornerstone Kids is such a minimal commitment that makes such a maximum difference in the lives of young people,” said Messenheimer, who among other things has taught his mentee how to play chess and taken him swimming.

“It’s four hours a month however you want to divide that. It could be one hour a week, or it could be four hours, one time a month,” he said, noting that many mentors, including himself, exceed this minimum requirement.

“It could be anything as simple as going to a movie, playing a video game, having a conversation, taking a walk in the park,” Messenheimer said.

Becoming a mentor is simple, Jackson said. Participants must first complete the archdiocese’s Safe Environment Training and undergo the background check required of all church volunteers. Applicants are appraised of Cornerstone Kids’ expectations during an interview with Jackson and his assistant, Yolander Carter, and attend a follow-up meeting with Jackson, the mentee and the child’s parent or caregiver.

“Periodically we do little events to bring everyone in the whole program together,” Jackson said, citing the recent Christmas party held at the Sisters of the Family’s motherhouse.

Jackson has watched proudly as once-quiet mentees come out of their shells – children such as the boy who entered the program at age 9 with a “bad attitude” and poor school performance who now is flourishing under his mentor’s companionship. The boy, now 14, saw his horizons broaden exponentially when his mentor began taking him to ball games, parks and museums.

“It’s the quality of time that the mentor invests that makes the difference,” Jackson notes. “The child began to see how different the (larger) world was from his own world. There were several other children in his house, and it was competitive with them even at meals. He was taken out of that environment. His mentor changed that kid’s attitude.”

Looking for a caring friend

Another of Jackson’s tasks is reminding prospective mentors to resist the temptation to associate the criminal conduct of the incarcerated parent with the innocent child.

“These kids are just normal kids. They just happen to have a parent who’s incarcerated,” he said. “They’re just normal kids who want someone to love them, to care for them, to help them, to be friends with them and to do things with them.”  

For more information on Cornerstone Kids, call Leo Jackson or Yolander Carter at 341-0989. Mentors do not have to be Catholic and may also indicate a preferred age range for their mentee.

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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