VERSAILLES — Lisa Johnson is doing the human equivalent of herding cats, trying to get middle schoolers to find a seat at the end of a long day. She promises the tough crowd, in an upbeat, chirpy voice, that an upcoming lesson on space will be fun. The crowd seems skeptical.
"You always say it's going to be fun and it never really is fun," seventh-grader Jai Burgess, 13, said loud enough for everyone in the after-school program Mentors & Meals to hear.
Johnson ignores him; she knows she's dealing with kids at an often-difficult age, and she's wise enough to pick her battles.
Not that she's afraid of a challenge. After decades in pharmaceutical sales, Johnson was looking for a challenge. 'I'm not the kind to just sit around," she said, and she knew her challenge had something to do with enhancing education.
The idea for Mentors & Meals just kind of popped into her head, she said.
The nonprofit provides free after-school tutoring and a hot meal to middle school students in Woodford County. During the first year of operation, the 2011-12 school year, more than 100 volunteer mentors helped 60 students. And 2,000 hot meals were served.
More than half the students improved their grades, and volunteers provided 2,600 hours of community service, Johnson said.
And she did it all with $3,000 in donations and an endless investment of her personal time.
The way Johnson tells it, the program was simply meant to be. First, she contacted the district, and the school confirmed that there was a need. Next, she found the ideal space, at the First Christian Church. Finally, it turned out that First Christian Church received food from God's Pantry and was willing to share so Mentors & Meals could provide the weekday meals.
Gary Jones, who works with God's Pantry and the Ministerial Association of Woodford County, said Johnson has a way of bringing things together.
"She's just great," he said. "She has that Type A personality that gets things done."
Before she began the program, Johnson spread the word that she needed students and volunteers; she soon had plenty of both groups.
Because Woodford has only one high school and one middle school, many of the mentors are Woodford County High School students who are familiar with the teachers and the academic work their middle school charges are tackling. Plus, she said, the student mentors are easier to relate to than folks like herself, a middle-aged mom.
"The high school mentors walk in, and they are instantly cool," she said.
There are some older adult mentors, but the bulk of volunteers are from nearby Midway College, which dedicates eight work-study students to the project.
In its first year, the program was open only to sixth graders, but it has expanded. Johnson doesn't require participants to meet any income guidelines but will eliminate kids from the program who don't show up, so others on a waiting list will have a chance to participate. A school bus brings the children to First Christian Church in downtown Versailles. Parents must pick up their children at the end of the afternoon.
Mentoring and improving a student's academic performance are the focus of the program, but Johnson realized that many of Woodford County's middle school students come from homes where there isn't enough food. That's when she started offering a meal, too.
Johnson said the Woodford model could be easily replicated in other school districts. She's seen the good the program could do on a small scale. "What if we could get it in all 120 counties?" she said.
Alex Stromberg, a junior at Woodford County High School, said he is volunteering to get community service hours for the Beta Club, but he likes being able to help kids who struggle with the same work he was doing a few years ago.
"Most of the teachers they have, I had," he said.
Alex also seemed to enjoy working as a mentor during a recent science experiment that involved dropping round weights into bins of compacted flour to measure the impact of a meteorite on the surface of a planet.
Across the room, the skeptical seventh-grader, Jai Burgess, is literally sliding across the floor in his sock feet to speed to his experiment station. Flour, somehow, has gotten on his face and in his hair.
Jai said he is the type of kid who "doesn't like to cooperate too much with teachers." He said the Mentors & Meals is different because it seems that the people helping him can really relate to him.
And, he said proudly, since school began this year, his grade in science has gone from an F to an A.
Want to help?
Mentors & Meals needs volunteers to help with tutoring, cooking and helping to check-in and check-out the students. It also needs snacks, laptops, iPads, school supplies and $10 gift cards given as incentives to the students and volunteers. Cash donations can be made to: Mentors & Meals, 160 Lexington Road, Versailles, Ky., 40383. To learn more, go to Mentors-Meals.org or call (859) 552-6873.