Caring Mentors Help Improve Student Attendance at Center High School


Center High School sophomore Jerry King and his mentor John Gelvin pose with the Big Impact Award at the South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner. Photo by Kelly Wachel.

A mentorship program at Center High that pairs local adults with students has been named the Big Impact Award winner by the South Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. The award was announced Feb. 8 at the Armacost Museum in Grandview.

A total of 10 award winners (including the Martin City Telegraph) were celebrated that night, but the most online votes went to the high school’s program, called Center Impact, that began in mid-2016 after nearby churches and nonprofits brainstormed with school officials on how to improve attendance rates.

“It was an area in our Annual Performance Report that we really wanted to improve,” says Kelly Wachel, director of public relations for the Center School District. “We saw a need and we wanted to address it intensively. We knew the mentor route was the way to go.”

The school first identified a group of kids whose attendance ranged from 70 to 80 percent. A goal of 90 percent or better was set. Although statistics won’t be analyzed until the end of this school year to compare changes, Wachel says administrators already can tell the program is having a positive effect by providing professional, emotional and general support for the students involved.

Mentors undergo a background check and a brief training session before being matched with students according to personalities, jobs, interests, hobbies and skill sets. Weekly meetings are the norm, usually at lunchtime. Sometimes mentors will attend students’ football games or wrestling matches as well, and one treated a teen to a manicure and pedicure before a job interview. A nurse and a retired doctor are helping teens who are interested in medical careers, while younger mentors include a recent college grad who works at Burns & McDonnell and a mother with kids in elementary school who wants to see what high school is like.

A popular YouTube video produced by the school shows Gary Bilton, a retired counselor, and 18-year-old Raymontey McNeal talking about their relationship, which McNeal credits for encouraging him to raise his grade point average to 3.5 and higher. “It pushed me, and I don’t have a lot of people to push me. My dad is really not there…I will remember my whole life that you always need a friend to make you better,” he says.

Bilton, who admits he wasn’t sure in the beginning how the mentorship would work out, says he is proud of Raymontey’s achievements. A bonus is how the program has affected him, too. “You will be changed,” he says, “and you will like the change.”

“You will be change. And you will like the change.” Gary Bilton

Wachel says the program’s launch depended on crucial help from members of various churches, businesses and civic organizations, including Colonial Presbyterian, Evangel Church, Holmeswood Baptist, John Knox Kirk, Caring for Kids, Young Life, South KC Alliance and the South KC Chamber of Commerce. The multi-year goal is to find mentors for 100 students. Currently there are 50 students with matches and 15 more on a waiting list.

The Center Impact program is part of a long-established initiative called Center Friends (formerly Youth Friends) that coordinates volunteers who help with classroom activities, individual tutoring and staff parties throughout the district.

“The options are many,” says Wachel, “but it’s harder to get volunteers for the high school. Most want to work with elementary school kids.”

For more information on any of the volunteer programs, contact Wachel at 816-349-3730 or

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