Unlikely pair creates everlasting bond through CCU mentoring program

Rahkiah Swinton, 18, will cross the stage on Wednesday at Myrtle Beach High School to graduate with the class of 2015 and head off to Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., in the fall.

Five years ago, Swinton wasn’t sure this day would come. Until she met Laura Cole.

Cole joined the Dalton & Linda Floyd Family Mentoring Program at Coastal Carolina University in 2011 as part of her international marketing course and was paired with Swinton, who was then in eighth grade. Swinton was having trouble in class and spent “a lot” of time in detention, Cole said.

“She had trouble dealing with kids, and they would egg her on and get her in trouble,” Cole said. “I was just there to encourage her and talk to her, to let her know that it gets better.”

All Swinton needed was a little bit of encouragement from her mentor.

“Laura motivated me to be more positive,” Swinton said. “It’s important to have someone to talk to, someone to guide you in the right direction.”

The program works to improve retention and graduation rates at area schools and improve student behavior, learning and attitudes toward higher education. Swinton said she wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about the importance of succeeding in high school without a mentor by her side.

“Being mentored, it taught me a lot,” she said. “It helped me focus on what I needed to do to get into college, and why it’s important.”

Swinton was raised in Myrtle Beach with three brothers and a sister. She was having trouble at school, both academically and behaviorally, and said she didn’t have any positive support or guidance.

“Coming from Horry County, there’s a lot of negative things that can drag you down. There’s a lot of people that want to see you fail,” Swinton said.

Spending time with her mentor – both formally inside school and after Cole had graduated from CCU – turned her life in the right direction.

“To have someone that’s a positive in your life is so important,” Swinton said. “You need someone who believes in you, who can see your potential.”

Cole worked hard to be the positive light in Swinton’s life. She said they would meet once a week in the Myrtle Beach Middle School library and talk, go over homework or just work through any problems Swinton was having at school. The pair kept in touch after Cole graduated college, and they generally meet up once a month and talk on the phone often.

Any time Swinton needed an escape from her home life, she called Cole.

“I’d pick her up and we’d go do something,” Cole said. “Just her being able to get away from that, it was really good for her.”

“She’s here when I feel like nobody else has been there,” Swinton added.

The Dalton and Linda Floyd Family Mentoring Program based out of Coastal Carolina University serves 380 children in 30 schools each year. Margene Nelson-Willis, at-risk specialist with the program, said an average of 265 mentors participate yearly. Most of the children are fourth- and fifth-graders, but mentors can be paired with students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“Our program is especially important because as college students, our mentors were successful in completing high school and going on to college,” Nelson-Willis said. “They provide an example and can encourage children to persevere with education.”

The program kicked off in fall 2004, when a pilot program was started as collaboration between CCU and Horry County Schools, beginning with fourth graders in five schools, with funding from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. The Dalton and Linda Floyd family reinforced this effort in October 2006 and became the program’s sponsor, Nelson-Willis said.

Teachers, guidance counselors and administrators at each school make student recommendations, and each student is asked if they would like a mentor. If so, parents must sign a permission form before the student joins the program, Nelson-Willis said.

“When the program was started, we all knew it would have an impact on the children because research had shown us this,” said Zan Wiggins, director of the program.

“What we didn’t realize is the effect it would have on the mentors,” he said.

The majority of mentors are taking a course that requires mentoring or other community service projects, and almost half the mentors are teaching majors, Nelson-Willis said. Thirty-one majors are represented in the program, including marine biology, sociology, health promotion and communication.

“Some mentors have told us it’s the best experience they had while at Coastal Carolina University,” Nelson-Willis said.

Though Swinton and Cole are almost 10 years apart, their similarities and friendship have bound them together forever. The program brought the unlikely pair together, and Cole said she is thankful for the experience.

“This forced interaction that turned into a friendship, that's the best part,” Cole said.

Swinton plans to become a social worker and help other young people in similar situations, one day becoming a mentor to other girls who may be struggling.

“I figured if I can go through it and still succeed, so can others,” she said.

Both mentor and mentee agree the program has opened their minds to opportunities they wouldn’t normally experience and friendships they wouldn’t normally create. They encourage others to participate in mentoring programs to experience life through someone else’s eyes.

“People live in bubbles of their surroundings” Cole said. “They get so used to their every day life that they don't know how different life is for someone a mile away.

“It's easy to get along with everybody if you just try.”

Contact CLAIRE BYUN at 626-0381 and follow her on Twitter @Claire_TSN.

Graduation dates

Tuesday, June 2

▪ HCS Early College High School, 6 p.m., HTC Center (Coastal Carolina University)

Wednesday, June 3

▪ Conway High School, 7 p.m., HTC Center

▪ Loris High School, 6 p.m., LHS gymnasium

▪ Myrtle Beach High School, 6 p.m., MBHS auditorium

Thursday, June 4

▪ Carolina Forest High School, 7 p.m.., CFHS gymnasium

▪ Green Sea Floyds High School, 6 p.m., GSFHS gymnasium

▪ North Myrtle Beach High School, 3 p.m., The Alabama Theatre

▪ Socastee High School, 3 p.m., Myrtle Beach Convention Center

▪ Adult Education, 7 p.m., Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology

▪ Aynor High School, 7 p.m., AHS gymnasium

▪ Waccamaw High School, 5 p.m., WHS gymnasium

▪ Georgetown High School, 7 p.m., GHS gymnasium

Friday, June 5

▪ St. James High School, 1:30 p.m., The Palace Theatre

▪ Andrew High School, 7 p.m., AHS gymnasium

▪ Carvers Bay High School, 5 p.m., CBHS gymnasium