It takes a village

Anderson Davis knows firsthand the need a kid with a bad attitude has for community intervention.

“I was that at-risk child,” he reveals. “I did drugs, and it’s nothing I want anyone else to go through. I thought it was all right to do whatever you felt like you were big enough to do.”

The child he was is exactly the kind of child targeted by Davis’ Asheville-based mentoring organization, Partners Unlimited Inc. — at-risk kids ages 10-18, whom Davis calls “the underserved.”

“Any child with a bad attitude,” he explains, is a potential client — whether it’s a struggling delinquent who hasn’t yet committed any crime or someone who’s already spent time in the juvenile-justice system.

Communication failures, says Davis, are responsible for many of today’s serious social problems, including those involving our kids.

“There’s a lot of cracks in the community; people don’t know who their neighbors are. When the community isn’t communicating, you can’t look after each other’s children,” he notes.

Davis hopes his nonprofit, formed about a year ago, can help bridge some of those gaps.

Each volunteer mentor works with a child for three hours a week, “being a positive role model, building a relationship with that child … being someone he or she can open up to,” Davis explains.

But what sets Partners Unlimited apart from many other mentoring programs, says Davis, “is that we’re family-oriented. The mentor [also] builds a relationship with the family, because a lot of times the family’s having a problem.”

Even if the mentor can’t directly address that problem, he notes, “we can point [the family] in avenues or to other organizations that can help them,. We feel if we build a relationship or some kind of rapport with the family, it will help both the child and the family. We can … help them build a better relationship at home.”

Although mentoring is the organization’s primary focus, there are four other components that Davis believes are necessary to “do an efficient mentoring job.”

The first two — tutoring and computer placement — are already in place. The other two — a parent support group and a children’s hot line — should be up and running soon.

Tutoring, says Davis, is “a deterrent to drugs, to all kinds of crime. If [a child] is doing good in school, he’s less apt to drop out and do crime. … Tutoring helps with comprehension. A child might be more able to understand the ramifications of certain actions. [And] the child can see where education can take them.”

Partners Unlimited is also working with the Reboot Coalition, a local group that recycles used computers. “A lot of children who come through the program can’t afford a computer, and by us doing recycling, we’re able to fix up computers and place them in children’s homes.”

“The reason we want to include the parent support group is that [as a mentor] you can spend as much time as you want with a child, but if the child is not getting support from home, it’s like spinning your wheels,” says Davis. With the support group, he notes, “We can work on this as a village. Parents can discuss their problems, discuss their child’s problem. That’s the basis of it — to start helping families communicate with each other.”

As for the children’s hot line, says Davis, “With a lot of parents working two jobs [or] a lot of hours, children don’t have someone they can talk to. When they have a serious problem, most times they can either go to television, the Internet, or one of their peers — which won’t give them any good information on how to handle the problem.”

“It really takes a village to raise a child,” emphasizes Davis. “That’s why we’re instituting all [of these components].”

Partners Unlimited is affiliated with a host of other organizations, including Asheville Parks & Recreation Services, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Education Coalition, the Mountain Area Information Network, the Mediation Center and the Community Work Service Program.

Davis stresses that his goal is not to duplicate existing services but to use what’s already out there to help these kids connect with the resources that can help them — whether it’s education, vocational training, anger management, counseling, or athletics.

“No matter what the child’s problem is, we feel there’s an organization somewhere that can address those problems,” Davis declares.

In mid-interview, Davis receives a phone call: Apparently, one of the kids in the program wants to learn how to play the piano, and Partners Unlimited has been trying to find someone in the community who’s willing to help out. The phone call tells him the search has been successful; someone has volunteered to give this child and another one free lessons. Says Davis, “You never know where that could lead to.”

As with any organization of this kind, the needs are great. Besides volunteers to work as mentors and tutors, Partners Unlimited also needs a facilitator to help with the parent support group, a grant writer, and people with technological know-how. Other items on the wish list include a television (with at least a 19″ screen) and VCR for training seminars, a van to transport children to and from tutoring sessions, and used computer hardware (especially functional Pentium+ computers, peripherals and software).

Davis credits a spiritual revelation in 1994 with turning his life around. “I joined the church in ’95 [and] got saved. … I got a reprieve from all the heartache and pain. … I feel like since God gave me another chance, it’s only natural that I help give someone else another chance.”

But Davis admits he’s felt compelled to do something like this for a long time. “Even when I was out on the streets doing one thing or the other, whenever my head got halfway clear I was thinking about something I could do to make the community better.

“I feel God placed this in my heart. It was something I needed to do in life. And I couldn’t get any peace until I started working on it,” he adds with a laugh.

“But it was 1997 when it really got me. It really just intensified — the unrest in my life. All I could think about was what to do and how to do it.”

Getting an organization like this up on its feet hasn’t been easy, notes Davis; “Whoo-ee!” is how he puts it. One person who was helpful in the beginning, he remembers, was then Asheville Mayor Russ Martin. Martin hooked Davis up with Linda Graney (then with United Way) and some other folks who were in the process of forming a coalition called the Mentoring Alliance. Says Davis: “I met some other people in the organization [and] it just went on from there. I spent a lot of time being a part of a lot of groups in order to learn and get information on how to go about doing this.”

Davis also credits the support he’s received from his wife, Shirley Davis, saying, “[She] has been instrumental in helping me with this whole thing.”

Early last year, Partners Unlimited officially opened its doors in the Reid Center (133 Livingston St.) — a space provided by Asheville Parks & Recreation Services. “It’s been a blessing. I have joy, I have peace,” says Davis.

“It’s also a headache,” he concedes, laughing once again. “But I’d do it again. … One day, one of these children, one of the underserved, will come back and help in the program … or you’ll see some child you worked with on the TV, or you’ll read about them in the paper — and they’ll really be making a difference.”

Just like Davis.

For more information, contact Partners Unlimited or visit their Web site (www.main.nc.us/partnersunlimited).

Valentine benefit for Partners Unlimited

Adorn Salon & Boutique (63 N. Lexington Ave.) will hold a “Paint the Town Red” Valentine’s Day fashion show to benefit Partners Unlimited on Friday, Feb. 14, 8-12 p.m. “Paint the Town Red” will showcase designs from such local boutiques as Minx, Lava, Constance Boutique, Ocean and more. After the show, there’ll be dancing and cocktails, plus light snacks. Admission is $7.

For more information, call Adorn at 225-8828.

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