He’s mapping a future that includes college and veterinary
school. But first he’s got to navigate the realities of middle school,
especially challenging because English is his second language. When he
struggles with class work, needs help solving a problem or just wants someone
to talk to, Rick Rodriguez listens.
Rodriguez, an engineer and MBA who’s the residential
customer insights manager at Duke Energy, is Luis’ big brother. It’s not a
biological relationship, but a relationship formed through Big Brothers Big
Sisters of Greater Charlotte.
Every other week during the school year, Luis and 35 other
Sedgefield Middle School students ride a bus to Duke Energy in uptown Charlotte
to eat lunch with their big brothers and big sisters. It’s a working lunch,
with the bigs leading the littles in exercises designed to help them succeed in
They talk about setting goals, working hard in school,
managing money and making smart choices. For some, those goals include
attending college and pursuing professional careers, which would make them the
first in their families to do either.
Duke Energy joined the Beyond School Walls program four
years ago and for the past two has partnered with students at Sedgefield, which
is a high-poverty school. The Duke Energy Foundation this year gave $36,000 for
the mentoring program. Duke Energy is one of three Charlotte-area companies
participating in the Beyond School Walls program. The others are Ally Financial
and LPL Financial. The companies provide adult mentors for 88 children. All
told, Charlotte's BBBS agency serves more than 1,300 children.
Some matches, like Rodriguez and Luis, also spend time
together outside of work and school.
The two like to go out to eat; Luis will try anything he’s
served. They go to movies and play board games. Luis, 12, admits that he plays
mind games, such as the stare down, when he and Rodriguez compete. It’s part of
his winning strategy.
“Me and Ricky, we’re
of Puerto Rican descent, both of us. He’s a very cool guy, he’s got a good
sense of humor and he’s very respectful,” Luis said and then grinned as he
teased Rodriguez about lacking game skills.
“He likes to talk trash,’’ Rodriguez said, shaking his head.
Rodriguez said he enjoys the time he spends with Luis. He’s
single without kids of his own and though he’s close to his sister’s children,
they live too far away to see or mentor on a regular basis.
“Luis is a really good kid. He’s easy-going and fun to be
around. He’s very respectful … he does value what I think of him. This is an
opportunity for me to feel like I’m contributing positively to someone else’s
Rodriguez said mentoring Luis connects him to his own
“My parents experienced similar challenges to Luis growing
up, having to adapt to a new language and culture in their formative years.
That is an area where I think I can help him and it has really brought us
Big Brothers Big Sisters program coordinator Kshari Ellis
said it’s clear that the Sedgefield “littles” have benefited from their
relationships with their Duke Energy “bigs.” In a survey at the end of last
year, 94 percent of the littles reported life improvements such as academic achievement,
better behavior and social and emotional development.
The overall goal is to create long-lasting relationships,
Ellis said. “I enjoy seeing the littles empowered to see different careers and
maybe one day think that they may want to be in the same career as their bigs.”
Kathryn Whitten, a Duke Energy economic development
specialist, says she’s seen her little sister, Destany Cass-Wyatt, develop more
self-confidence in her abilities. The two go to movies and restaurants and have
picnics at a park. Their biggest outing was a Selena Gomez concert.
“It’s valuable for her to get to know someone in the
workplace outside of her family, and valuable for me to get what’s going on
inside the middle school mind,” Whitten said. “She keeps me up to date on the
latest trends and fashion.”
“She helps me when
I’m stuck on school work. She has a good personality and she’s a good role
model,” Destany said of Whitten. “She encourages me to keep going in my
education and to stay strong.”
Pamela Ratliff, assistant principal at Sedgefield Middle,
says she has seen big changes in kids participating in the program.
"They're a lot more focused and a lot more mature,”
Ratliff said. “The relationship they’re getting here − it adds another level of
someone who cares. It’s been phenomenal. Watching the smiles on the kids’ faces
shows me the people they’re talking to are listening to them.”
Written by Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis, Duke Energy