When Okema Washington first moved to Gainesville from New York, she wanted to make sure her son, Jakhai, had a positive male influence in his life.
She searched for mentoring programs, but was told that Jakhai was too young to participate in them. Then, Jakhai’s principal told Okema Washington about Centerpoint, and the organization’s executive director, David Smith, agreed to mentor Jakhai even though he was too young.
That was five years ago, but Smith still spends time with Jakhai, now a fifth-grader, every week.
"David always says he’s going to be with Jakhai until he goes to college," Washington said. "He’s absolutely fabulous. We were so blessed to get him."
Smith was honored as a hero along with about 10 others Thursday night when the organization honored the mentors who have worked with Centerpoint for at least 10 years.
At the reception, local dignitaries and members of the education community expressed their gratitude for the impact that mentors make on the lives of area students.
"It always makes me proud to be from this area ... that we have people like yourself that use your time and talents for the betterment of this area," said Steve Parks, chairman of the Centerpoint Board of Directors.
Last year, 87 percent of the students who participated in the program improved in their academics, attendance record, behavior, trust in school and teachers or in their peer relationships, said Kate Hoffman, mentor coordinator for Centerpoint.
"Our evaluations are showing that we’re actually doing things," Hoffman said.
Currently, about 300 mentors volunteer in the Gainesville and Hall County School systems, but Hoffman says there are students on waiting lists at nearly every school in the county.
But numbers aside, one Hall County administrator said he has personally experienced the need for and the impact mentors have on students’ lives.
"If a prizefighter steps into a ring without having somebody in their corner, the odds are that they’re not going to do very well," said Jim Sargent, principal of West Hall Middle School.
Okema Washington said she has noticed that Jakhai has more self-esteem and has become more responsible and compassionate since Smith became his mentor.
"He (Smith) loves him," Washington said "He’s (Smith) actually become a part of our family."