Helping teens soar is the focus of a North Carolina tutoring and mentorship program that involves a small group of Lutheran volunteers working in partnership with public schools.

Based out of Zion Lutheran Church, Hickory, N.C., the program is called EAGLES—an acronym for its focus on education, adventure, God, leadership, the environment and service.

The program is geared for male students struggling with poor grades and personal challenges from Jacobs Fork Middle School and Fred T. Foard High School in nearby Newton.

The students meet for three hours every week in Zion’s gym to receive help with homework from volunteer tutors, play sports and eat a meal. They also interact with the mentors’ pet pooches, who have become beloved mascots.

The program launched in fall 2014 and is the brainchild of Zion members Drew and Kay Dodd. Both were beginning retirement and looking for ways to give back.

“I knew I wanted to do something with kids,” said Drew Dodd, a former engineer. “It occurred to me the church has all the facilities you could ever need to do this program. We’re doing this on a shoestring [budget], so it slowly evolved from that.”

The program received $5,000 in funding from the North Carolina Synod its first year. Supported by church donations, this year’s budget is $10,000, including $4,000 for scholarships to Lutheridge Camp, Arden, N.C.

The students and mentors have volunteered at local charities and have participated in several adventures, including ziplining, mountain hiking, flying in a private plane and visiting the BMW plant. This summer the teens will spend a week at Lutheridge.

Seth Hendrix, who will be in 10th grade in the fall, has seen benefits from participating in EAGLES. He said he began falling behind in third grade after he missed several weeks of school and began skimming by. Since the EAGLES program his grades have gone from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.

“Now I read a lot; I write a lot,” Hendrix said. “I’m amazed at how smart I truly can be. I’ve learned a lot [about] how to respect my elders or anyone, and I’ve learned how to act in public, how to talk appropriately.”

EAGLES reach new heights

The program’s primary goals are making sure the kids graduate from high school and “to have them realize they can achieve great things in life,” Drew Dodd said. “We talk a lot about their life goals. We talk about behavior. We’re trying to help them see that they can have a bright future.”

Before launching the program, the Dodds sought advice from counselors and church members and met with officials at Jacobs Fork.

Melanie Sigmon, school counselor for Jacobs Fork, said the Dodds approached her with their vision. The board approved the program, and Sigmon serves as liaison between the school and Zion, and connects with teachers who recommend students for the program.

Sigmon said the teachers suggest students who are struggling with academics, those who are capable but just aren’t producing.

“These students need that extra support, that nudge toward some sense of purpose,” she said. “EAGLES does that. They kind of bridge that gap. They help the parents, who are struggling to find that for their child. It’s such a good way of forming a safety net from the teachers to the administration to the parents to the religious community.”

Once students have been recommended, Drew Dodd meets with their parents and guardians to explain the program and get their support. Currently, EAGLES includes 18 students. Ten volunteers, most from Zion, serve as tutors and mentors.

Students Riley Bollinger and Stephen Bryant from Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, help out with the program and receive scholarship assistance from Zion in exchange. They bring the experience of having worked as counselors at Lutheran camps.

“[The program] gives the kids a safe place to just be kids,” Bryant said. “They can be active, do homework. They don’t have to worry about outside peer pressure.”

Dakota Bentley, a ninth-grader in the fall, credits EAGLES with helping him improve his grades and behavior. “I used to get in trouble a lot in class,” he said. “I’ve been talking to people here at the church. They’ve taught me to stay focused.”

Before EAGLES, Kaleb Giles, also going into the ninth grade, said he typically didn’t do his homework. Now he does and his grades have benefited.

The students are “getting a chance to see there are different choices they can make,” said David Bryant, pastor of Zion. “It’s given them an opportunity to make choices to empower themselves and find more effective ways to go forward.”

Participants pray before each session and before the meal. They discuss God, but program leaders make a point to not preach to the students. “We try to show it through what we do,” Drew Dodd said.

Volunteer Barbara Mahnke, a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Hickory, said she’s driven to help provide students the opportunity to do well and to experience success. She and others say the work is fulfilling.

Linda Morton, another volunteer and member of Zion, agrees: “[We’re] reaching out to kids outside the church door; it’s such a powerful program.”

For more information, contact Drew Dodd.

Francine Knowles

Knowles is a freelance writer and former religion and business reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times.

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