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Mentor Connection Helps Teenager Navigate Obstacles to Adulthood

Jewish Family Service program has helped at-risk youths since 2005, but faces difficulty recruiting men to help.

An average young man could attempt to single-handedly take on the difficulties of adulthood without actively trying to relate to a male adult, but Jeff is no average young man.

Through the Mentor Connection program, Jeff, 18, has found comfort, information and fun with Todd Schafer, 45, of Beverly Hills, who befriended him in place of an absentee father.

"To have someone there who I can talk to without needing to spell everything out is important," said Jeff, a high school senior from Royal Oak whose last name is withheld from this story. "We really are really comfortable with each other ... he's like family I never had."

For the past eight years, Jeff has been able to reach out past his friends at school and his family at home, where he lives with his grandmother, grandfather and mother.

According to Jewish Family Service social worker Alison Orley, the friendship between Todd and Jeff is somewhat exceptional as the program’s waiting list is dominated by boys, especially those in minority groups. Unfortunately, Orley added, the shortage of male mentors does not accurately represent the needs of Oakland County’s male youths.

“Young boys get a lot out of doing guy stuff – activities and fun events. Throughout their time together, it’s about having someone they can learn from, someone they can see has grown up into a man,” Orley said.

With Schafer by his side, Jeff has experienced a wide range of activities from a black tie event related to the 2006 Super Bowl held in Detroit to simple Christmas shopping. Many activities are funded through the program, Orley said, and mentors need only make a time commitment of about four hours per month.

However, the two have grown past that into hanging out together several times per month. It's been an incredible relief for Jeff's grandmother, Ethlyn Unger, who agreed that Schafer has become part of the family.

"There have been times where, if something has gone on which could be difficult for me to talk with Jeff about, I would give Todd a call and ask him to break the news," said Unger, 73. "I know Jeff has grown and matured in part because of the program and I think Todd has, too."

For Schafer, who began with the program as a single man and has no children, it's been an incredible learning experience.

"I started out just dipping my toes in the water. What do I know about helping a 10-year-old child navigate anything?" Schafer said. "(Jeff has) gone through middle school, high school and puberty since I've known him ... it's been eye-opening and interesting, if even a bit scary sometimes."

Schafer describes Jeff as effervescent and intelligent, with a terrific interest in the history of the RMS Titanic incident and an interest in possibly doing work with props as a filmmaker.

Although Jeff has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Schafer said that the first thing that comes to mind when he describes Jeff is his innocence and his sense of wild-eyed appreciation for life.

"I went into this thinking, oh, I’m going to do good. I don't think in any uncertain terms I would have thought I'd benefit as much as Jeff has. Between things like getting to interact with a young person and seeing the world through their eyes, I feel like I know what my parents were talking about when they told me things I laughed about as a kid," Schafer said.

The program has served as a stepping stone of sorts for Schafer, an attorney who works primarily in the areas of real estate and corporate law. He serves as an ambassador for Mentor Connection as a member of its Advisory Council, promoting it in the Oakland County community, and also serves on the JFS Board of Directors.

"It feels great in a way that I didn't get to before by just writing a check," Schafer said. "No doubt I've grown from it in ways I couldn't identify."

Although Jeff officially aged out of the program when he turned 18, he may return to it in a different capacity. Inspired by Schafer, Unger said, Jeff has indicated an interest that he'd like to be a mentor someday, too.

For more information on Mentor Connection, contact Alison Orley, LMSW at (248) 592-2317 or aorley@jfsdetroit.org.

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