In North Bronx Church, Mentors Build Relationships with Bronx Students


Four Fordham students are part of a mentorship program at Epiphany Church. Katie Meyer/ The Fordham Ram

Four Fordham students are part of a mentorship program at Epiphany Church. Katie Meyer/ The Fordham Ram
Four Fordham students are part of a mentorship program at Epiphany Church. Katie Meyer/ The Fordham Ram

By Katie Meyer

Every Saturday morning, rain or shine or snow, a group of Fordham students gets up early and makes a twenty-minute trek into the North Bronx. Their destination? Epiphany Lutheran Church, is a self-proclaimed “melting pot” church that has been a staple in the Norwood neighborhood since 1928.

The visiting students are part of a group called Epiphany Mentoring, a program that has been run by Fordham students for eight years, and gives them a chance to hang out with kids from local neighborhoods.

There are currently four core members, although their numbers do vary week by week — Sara Power, FCRH ’15, Maryclare DeMenna, FCRH ’15, Monica Sobrin, FCRH ’17 and Claire Grant, FCRH ’17, have all been regular participants for at least a year.

Like the volunteers themselves, there is some variation in the kids who come to the program every week. Generally, there are between six and eight kids in attendance, and they range in age from five to 12. All of them are from families who frequent Epiphany Church.

The program is fairly loosely organized and the kids said they enjoy that freedom. There is no typical day; if it is nice out, the group goes to nearby Williamsburg Oval Park. But in the long winter months, they are stuck inside the church, and DeMenna says they have developed an arsenal of games and projects for those days.

“We’ll usually do a group game of sorts and draw for a while. Sometimes for holidays we’ll do different crafts that are themed,” she said. “And at the end of the program every week we’ll get bagels at the place down the street.”

But, the volunteers and kids agreed that the best part of their Saturdays together was just getting to talk to each other.
Twelve-year-old Maya, who has been attending the program with her younger sister for about two years, said the college kids always help her with her homework when she brings it on Saturdays. But, their non-homework related advice is even more useful.

“Sometimes I tell them about my school issues and they help me with [them],” she said. “Friend issues, normally. They tell me if they’re actually good, or if they’re not good friends.”

“It’s a totally a safe space,” Power explained. “They don’t have to worry about friends, or bullies, or even parents…it’s like we build our own little community in and of itself, and it’s just like totally different from anything else they have.”

But, Power added, it is possible the kids would not have this community much longer. Over the past few years, the Epiphany has hit something of a rough patch.

The mentoring program has never been an official club at Fordham — it is known as a “community partner,” and is technically run through the church, although the students say they generally do most of the work themselves. As a non-club, the group does not have certain privileges — most notably it cannot get university funding.

So, in order to get the money for supplies, snacks and a yearly field trip, the students say they have had to get a little creative. Last year, they applied for a tip jar in Rodrigues (every year a different organization gets the tips) and the proceeds from the jar paid for most of their expenses. But this year, they did not have the jar, and the group members say money has been tight.

Devoting the time to getting enough money is also a problem — the volunteers said fundraising is time consuming. Coupled with the Saturday morning volunteer times, that makes a fairly serious commitment. The volunteers said they think this has contributed to their biggest problem: not many students seem interested in continuing the program.

“I’ve seen it as it dwindled,” Power, who started volunteering during her sophomore year, said. “It’s just been a loss of Fordham student interest, which is really sad, but also neighborhood interest. We tried handing out flyers and getting more involved in the community, but we just haven’t seen much of a response.”

If the program is going to keep on, some kind of response is necessary — and soon. Both Power and DeMenna, the most experienced volunteers, are graduating this spring. The remaining members, Sobrin and Grant, say they won’t be able to keep mentoring without some help.

“As of now, Claire [Grant] and I are going to restructure the program so it can continue next year,” Sobrin said. “But we desperately need students who are interested in volunteering.”

Grant agreed.

“We’d have to, I feel, really know that people would be willing to participate in it, because without other people it just wouldn’t survive,” she said. “I feel like if I were a young kid, 12 or 13, and I had someone coming every week from college just to hang out and talk about whatever I want to talk about, I would really enjoy that. That close one-on-one relationship we have with all of them…it would just be a bummer to see that go away.”