No one knows the toll of COVID-19 on at-risk kids. 

When schools closed abruptly, students were instructed to complete classes online. That system had pitfalls.

What about kids with no Internet or computer access? Those who are learning English as a second language? Those who need one-on-one attention to complete assignments?

Marita Willis, CEO of Hope Collaborative, knows some students will get lost amid all of the changes related to COVID-19. During the school year, Hope Collaborative placed volunteer mentors in 28 public schools to connect with at-risk kids.

An abrupt end to the school year meant Hope Collaborative mentors never had the chance to encourage and reassure students they would return.

Mentors at Hope Place, an outreach of Hope Collaborative that provides resources for families in the Beechmont neighborhood, were able to stay in touch with kids through weekly check-in calls. They see some families when they pick up meals provided by Dare to Care.

Kristy Robison, who leads outreach at Hope Place, said learning from home was challenging for families that speak little English. Hope Place’s summer activities include therapeutic activities to help with emotional/mental health as well as academic programs to ensure students get caught up to start school in the fall.

Willis wonders what has happened to the kids mentored by Hope Collaborative volunteers.

She understands challenges.

Willis and her husband, Bob, grew up in the Park Hill Housing Project.

Successful professionally and active in the community—Marita was chair of the 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival—the Willises value those who encouraged them. Now they help kids thrive despite racial, economic and personal challenges.

They volunteer in honor of their late children: Ra’Shaan, who drowned in a flash flood on Chenoweth Run Road in 1997, and their daughter, Ra’Tonya, who died of sickle cell anemia in 2017.

“If we all don’t show up, who will?” Marita Willis said. “If we work with God, we pick up our cross and follow Him, what He has for us that day. That means we don’t leave kids behind.”

Denise Anthony, who is director of public school outreach at Hope Collaborative, also understands.

“I know what it feels like not to be seen, to slide into the classroom so you don’t bring attention to yourself,” she said. “I knew which teachers saw me and the ones who didn’t. In that environment, you have to be hypervigilant in a place that should be supportive no matter what you look like.”

Children like herself are always in the back of Anthony’s mind.

“I don’t want to see anyone robbed of their dream or the chance to fulfill the potential of their lives,” she said. “Mentors, teachers, coaches can fill that gap.”

The need is huge.

“We could double outreach from 312 students in 28 schools if we had more mentors,” Anthony said. “We especially need African-American male mentors to work with young men.”

Bob Willis thinks of the four young men he mentors in Oldham County.

“All four were troublemakers,” he said. “At first they tried to shock me. They had to see that I was there to stay, that I was not just coming for a few weeks, then going away. We talked about a lot of things. Some don’t know how many brothers or sisters they have. Often there’s no food in the fridge, and they go to other people’s houses to eat.”

One week, he taught them about the stock market.

Another week, he gave each one a necktie—not necessarily a favorite gift – until he told them a story behind each one.

His late son, Ra’Shaan wore the polka dot tie for his senior pictures.

“That tie was so special and so hard to give away,” Bob Willis said. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything but these young men.”

He wore the pink tie on Oaks Day while he escorted singer Aretha Franklin to festivities.

After he told each story, Willis lined the boys up and taught them how to tie a tie. All stood tall and proud with ties over T-shirts. They wore them the rest of the school day.

Marita Willis said school administrators give high praise to mentors.

“They see differences in kids,” she said. “They call us in to help if kids have issues. That’s an open door. We want these kids to see us as caring adults who want to walk alongside them.”

To learn more about Hope Collaborative or to volunteer, visit www.hopeccd.org.