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The Mentor

By Jon Reidel Article published April 9, 2003

Robert Erickson
Robert Erickson, lecturer of computer science, devotes considerable time to working with teenage boys in need of mentoring. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

One paragraph in the book Getting Started With Computers and Using Microsoft Office 2000 seems out of place in the midst of the complicated computer jargon.

But to UVM lecturer Robert Erickson, the author of the computer science textbook, the passage is more than just a mock sentence used to show students how to use the program’s character format function. It’s a reminder of the way he wants to live his life.

“What can you do to make the world a better place?” reads the passage. “After all it starts with you! Only you can make a difference.”

Words to live by, according to Erickson, who has spent the last five-and-a-half years as a mentor of teenage boys through the Community Friends Mentoring program at the Howard Center for Human Resources. Erickson says the program, which promotes the healthy development of young people by matching them with adult volunteers in one-on-one friendships, is the best way for him to remain true to his creed.

“It’s every person’s responsibility to give something back to the world,” Erickson says. “The path to becoming a better human being is by helping others. Everyone has to choose some way to give back whether it be picking up trash or helping young kids. This is what works best for me.”

The initiation
Erickson was paired up with a teenage boy from Chittenden County in 1998 after hearing about the program from a friend. Teaching four classes at UVM didn’t leave Erickson a lot of free time, so he set a realistic goal of meeting his new friend once or twice a week.

After getting stood up for some of the initially scheduled visits, Erickson started making alternative plans just in case his student didn’t show up. Eventually, the pair started communicating better and the get-togethers became more frequent.

“Going into it I was thinking that my role was to be a friend and act as an example of what you’re supposed to do,” Erickson says. “I’m not going to be preachy. I’d rather lead by example.”

Most visits consist of Erickson taking his buddy to a movie, bowling alley or somewhere to play pool. Sometimes after the movie, Erickson has the boy do yard work as payback for the movie to teach work ethic.

“We just hang out,” Erickson says. “We don’t always talk unless he wants to. Just spending time together is important.”

Erickson, who has hiked the length of the Long Trail in 25 days, has taken his student on hikes with the Green Mountain Club and on trips with the Smuggler’s Notch Snowmobile Club. In both instances, he’s had his buddy perform some type of work such as bridge building and trail clearing.

“He’s a really awesome combination of being laid back yet consistent and reliable,” says Kristen Hayden-West, coordinator of Community Friends Mentoring. “The boys react really well to him. He’s solid where it counts.”

Erickson assigned students in his advanced Web design class to construct a website for Community Friends. Each student designed a site, all of which Hayden-West reviewed before choosing one as her non-profit’s official site.

“He called and said, 'Your program needs a Website and my class needs a non-profit to build one for, ' ” Hayden-West says. “He’s been a great supporter of the program.”

Staying involved
Hayden-West asked Erickson if he’d take on another boy after his three-year period with the first boy ended. Erickson said yes, and has been mentoring him for almost two years.

“They’re like night and day,” Erickson says of the two boys. “Luckily I’ve been able to find some common ground with each.”

Erickson said he read about one of the boys getting in trouble in the newspaper and decided to talk to him about the incident, despite his usual practice of letting the boy broach touchy subjects himself.

“I’ve tried to stress to both of them that it’s okay to have fun, but that you must consider the consequences of your actions,” Erickson says.

Erickson plans to stay in touch with both boys, but realizes that will be increasingly difficult as they grow older. Erickson hired the boy he’s currently mentoring as the photographer at his wedding. Erickson invited the first boy to the wedding, but he was unable to attend. He plans to call him again, though, to tell him that he and his wife of one year are going to have a baby.

“I plan to treat both of them like I would any other friend,” Erickson says. “If something good or bad happens I’ll call them to tell them about it. I hope they do the same.”


For more information about the program Erickson is participating in, see Community Friends