Seven named Michigan's Mentors of the Year

Mentor and mentee

The Mentor of the Year award honors an individual who has made a significant difference in a child's life over time through mentoring. 

This year Gov. Rick Snyder honored:

PAULA C. DIRKES of Berkley became a mentor in 2000 when a speaker came to her church to recruit mentors for girls and boys. After some careful consideration, Paula asked herself, “If I don’t do this, who will?”, then stepped forward to volunteer. She has not only been an outstanding mentor since then, but she also reaches out regularly to the community to encourage others to mentor and has even published three books to encourage adults to get involved in mentoring children. Paula shares her own mentor experiences and stories as a backdrop for her guidebooks. Paula later launched her own social enterprise company, Solid Pathways Consulting, LLC, to support the missions of youth organizations by encouraging adults to get involved with kids who are missing a positive role model. Her mission is to make youth mentoring a social norm, rather than the exception. One of Paula’s mentees, Charlotte, was self-conscious and quiet when the two were introduced. After discovering Charlotte’s love for musical theatre, Paula took her to every play they could fit into their schedule. Charlotte has since gone on to participate in two community plays, and is in rehearsals for a third this summer. “Paula took a girl who was skittish and afraid, almost too nervous to leave the house without a parent,” recalls Charlotte’s mother, “And with compassion, thought, and love, helped create a girl that is outgoing and unafraid to be her own person.”

Dawin Wright, Marilyn Gripper, and Tom Parkhill mentor with TeamGM Cares as part of the GM Student Corps. They select Detroit student interns for the summer and task them with creating, planning, and executing their own community service projects in their neighborhoods, under their supervision. The team put the students through intense life skills sessions to equip them with problem solving abilities to navigate through high school and beyond. Many students in the neighborhood lack resources and face several serious challenges. Since 2013, the trio has worked with 40 Frank Cody High School students, helping them form clearly defined goals, increasing their personal and professional skill set and giving them a greater exposure to the opportunities beyond what they see every day in Detroit. Every student who has gone through the GM Student Corps program with Team Cody has gone on to graduate from high school. Said one mentee, “My greatest achievement so far in my life would be graduating high school and attending a four year university. Honestly, where I'm from it isn't very common to actually go away to college and try to make something of yourself. Most people wouldn't think graduating high school is a huge accomplishment but in my eyes it is and it’s just a starter kit to chase after my dreams. I feel like if I graduated once I can do it again. There's nothing too big that I can’t conquer.”

Eric Miller of Detroit manages his own nonprofit, The Lawn Academy, and through it, he mentors several Detroit-area youth. He helps them realize their full potential and make positive connections in their community. As part of his program, youth between the ages of 11-18 participate in a college immersion program, in partnership with Wayne County Community College District, and when not in class, youth participants provide lawn services for the elderly, veterans in need, and people with special needs free of charge. However, Eric doesn’t just teach them about serving others, he makes sure they are doing well in school, learning to be leaders and receiving the tools they need to be successful in life. “Mr. Miller is very committed to the growth and development of these young men,” said Lawn Academy volunteer William Polk. “He just wants these young men to succeed, become the best men they can be, and give back to what was given to them.”  Eric has also volunteered with various other organizations, including Bridging Communities in Southwest Detroit, the Pontiac Women’s Shelter, SEMI Indian Community Center and Motor City Makeover.

Samuel Wells of Flint Township is a man that leads by example. He has led efforts to help young men become the next generation of leaders through the Alpha Esquire Mentoring and Leadership Program, which includes predominantly African-American young males from Flint and Genesee County. Sam helped develop the program and serves as the director. The Esquires enroll 40 members annually and emphasize education, community service, life skills and character building. Sam coordinates several events and workshops each year to help the young men in the program develop. He has also added a scholarship component, which awards $20,000 to 20 graduating seniors. The program also provides luggage, dorm microwaves, refrigerators and computers to students. To his peers, Sam has proven he will do anything he can to mentor the young men of the program and make sure they are successful in life. “His tireless dedication is a labor of love,” said his nominator David Guinn. “I have seen him give the shirt off his back for job interviews, prom or other important nights.”

Bobby Johnson of Detroit exemplifies what it means to be a great mentor and he always goes above and beyond what is expected from him. He has been very consistent and involved in every aspect of his mentees’ lives; from school, home and the various activities that they are involved in. The impact that he has recently made with his current mentee, RJ, has been remarkable. Recently, RJ was awarded a leadership award from the Boys and Girls Club that he attends. “He gives RJ advice on how to be respectful and has stepped in and helped as a father figure. If there is something going on at the school I know Bobby is going to be on top of it. I thank God for Bobby being a part of the village that has raised my grandson," said R.J.'s Grandmother. For years Bobby has helped recruit numerous mentors as well, helping the VIP Mentoring program grow. Bobby also volunteers in other ways as well, often serving with Habitat for Humanity, Gleaners Food Bank and more.