Student mentors help alumnus create ‘safe place’ for teens

L-R: Mississippi State senior Josh Taylor and alumnus Jeffery Johnson on the playground of the Boys and Girls Club in Starkville.

Josh Taylor has a quick smile and relaxed demeanor, which make him very approachable. But more importantly, the senior’s easy-going personality enables him to stay calm when facing a room full of teenagers armed with free time and curiosity.

“They ask some crazy questions,” the Ludlow native said. “Sometimes they’re being silly, but mostly they really are wanting to learn.”

Taylor works at the Boys and Girls Club of Starkville leading a class of seventh through 12th graders in the organization’s after-school program. While he plans short lessons and shows educational videos, he said it’s the open discussion times—when questions arise about topics including sex, drugs and college life—that are the most illuminating for everyone.

“I really try to connect with the students because you never know what’s going on at home,” Taylor said. “And their questions really make me think.”

Although some questions are awkward, Taylor said he does his best to answer honestly and set a good example, which is all Jeffery Johnson, unit director for the club, asks of his student workers.

“Our student workers have to be role models for the kids,” Johnson explained. “The more the kids see how much you care for them, the more they will trust you. And the more they trust you, the more they are willing to accept your guidance and leadership.”

He explained that the goal of the Boys and Girls Club is to create a safe environment where area kids can grow.

“Whether it’s physical, emotional or mental safety, kids have to feel cared for when they walk through our doors,” Johnson said. “Kids are very perceptive and they can tell if someone doesn’t care for them.”

Johnson joined the Boys and Girls Club as a volunteer in 2013 working his way up to a part-time staff role before earning a spot on the Bulldog basketball team. He returned at the conclusion of hoops season and earned his current position following his graduation in May. Since then, he has worked with the university’s work-study program and used his campus connections to recruit student workers like Taylor.

Johnson said that being closer in age gives the college students more credibility with the teenagers, but it can be an eye-opening experience.

“A lot of people have younger siblings, but it’s different when you are faced with a class of middle or high school students who all have their individual personalities and difficulties,” Johnson explained. “You have to put everything you have that is wrong aside to focus on the child.”

Taylor said he sees his work at the Boys and Girls Club as training for the future. An interdisciplinary studies major, like Johnson, he plans to use his unique mixture of kinesiology, education and psychology classes to teach and coach at the high school level.

“I just really love kids and really feel that’s what I’m meant to do,” Taylor said. “I don’t want a job where I’ll make money and be miserable. I want to have fun and be happy.”

Story by Susan Lassetter, Photography by Beth Wynn