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Immersion Mentoring

By Joe Sugarman
Sarah Hemminger is the CEO and co-founder of Thread, a nonprofit that offers to support underperforming high school students for 10 years.

How do you reduce the high school dropout rate, particularly for kids most at risk? For Sarah Hemminger, it’s all about fostering healthy relationships. Creating lasting connections with high school kids is the underlying principle of Thread, an organization that the Johns Hopkins alum co-founded in 2004 with her husband, Ryan Hemminger. Ryan had his own struggles in high school, and nearly dropped out before a group of teachers banded together to help him succeed.

Thread now works with students in the bottom 25 percent of their classes at three Baltimore City schools, pairing them with a “family” of up to five volunteers who commit to work with the students for 10 years, through high school and beyond. The volunteers help with everything from schoolwork and rides to assisting with difficult family situations. Since its start, Thread has teamed more than 900 volunteers with over 300 students, and the results have been nothing short of astonishing: 91 percent of the students have graduated from high school, and 90 percent have been accepted to college. It’s statistics like these that have helped Thread garner attention nationally, in such publications as The New York Times and Forbes magazine.

What is it about establishing relationships that is so important to helping kids succeed?

We’re defining the problem as one of isolation. All human beings need to matter and have a purpose, and a lot of that comes from relationships with other people. Oftentimes in our society we group people into those who fix things and those who need things to be fixed.

At Thread, we view the relationships we are developing as a transformative experience for everyone—not just the student. The key to building sustainable relationships that transcend lines of race, class, gender, and age is to define success as both the students’ growth and our own. We support and learn from each other by sharing our challenges and vulnerabilities equally.

How do you create relationships between volunteers—many of whom are Hopkins students—and high school students who often come from very different backgrounds?

It’s all about equity in the relationship—and we establish that right away. When we interview a student, it’s not really an interview; it’s a conversation. For every question we ask them, they get to ask us a question. So if we ask, “Have you ever used illegal drugs?” the student will answer and ask right back at you: “Well, have you?” That changes the dynamic so we’re all on equal footing right from the start.

What’s happening to these kids that they need help from organizations like Thread?

The common factor is that they’re distracted by something outside of school, whether it’s something at home or something going on in their lives outside of the classroom. It was like that with my husband, whose father was in and out of jail and his mother was dealing and using drugs. It’s hard to focus on school when something like that is going on in your life.  He eventually graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy because of the support of others.

In the spring of 2015, Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore. How did his death, and the subsequent civil unrest in the city, affect your students and the organization?

The biggest thing is that our students felt really frustrated. When we asked what was driving that, they said, “The water bottles.” What they meant was that people came in, dropped off water bottles, and left. In the absence of trying to form real relationships, they brought water. That began a yearlong arc of events, a series of dinners, mostly at people’s homes. The first one was last April, and we had 100 dinners at 100 different locations all across the city. The host of each dinner provided a meal and led a conversation to explore how we can thread together to strengthen our city.  The goal is to create spaces where people can meet each other across lines of race, class, and ZIP code, and connect. For real change to occur, we have to think about how we can bring our city together in a permanent way, not just when a crisis hits.

What are your plans for the future? Can you see bringing Thread to other cities?

We think that going deep in Baltimore is how we can have the most profound impact. Ultimately, we would like to reach the most academically underperforming 5 percent of every freshman high school class across Baltimore City Public Schools. That means bringing in 300 new students each year, with an eventual goal of 3,000 students and 7,000 volunteers, plus another 10,000 collaborators [who act as resources for our students and volunteers by providing pro bono services or expertise], donors, staff, and the adult counterparts of all our Thread members, so 20,000 in all. That’s 5 percent of the adult population in Baltimore knitted together across lines of race and class. That’s a real impact.

Ultimately, what is it that helps these kids succeed?

It’s the shared life challenges between student and volunteer. The students see how the volunteers don’t give up. The volunteers share their own challenges and vulnerabilities. They see volunteers showing up, being responsible, being resilient in their own lives. They see them fall down and get back up, and  that’s inspiring.

Sarah Hemminger
Montse Bernal

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