Heather Harvison’s home is a work in progress. She and her six-year-old son Ryan moved recently to a cozy Rodgers Forge home, but the mini-maelstrom caused by the national publicity she has received for her work as executive director of My Sister’s Circle—a mentoring program for Baltimore students from some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods—has left her little time to get settled.
“I apologize for the mess,” says Harvison, “but 2009 was the biggest year imaginable. Things really heated up last year. When the national press hit, people called from all across the nation, saying, ‘There’s no such model for anything like this but Baltimore. Can we start a program here?’”
The 39-year-old Harvison has been responding to inquiries from teachers and other mentoring groups ever since. “I have fielded hundreds of thousands of calls,” she says. “Exciting as it was, it was also upsetting to think there was so much need out there.”
The 10-year-old nonprofit My Sister’s Circle sets itself apart from other mentoring programs by tracking its students for an extended period of time and asking its volunteer mentors to give a minimum of three years to the effort. It pairs fifth-grade girls with adult female mentors for middle school, high school, and even through college.
Drawing from Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. and Abbottston elementary schools in East Baltimore, educators identify students for the program whom they think show promise and will benefit from mentoring. Currently, 115 girls are participating in My Sister’s Circle; 10 to 14 new fifth graders enter the program each year.
Mentors find their way to My Sister’s Circle through word of mouth, referrals from other mentoring groups, or Harvison herself, who makes presentations to community groups.
The generosity of the mentors—there are about 90, ages 21 to 78—is unparalleled, Harvison says. In addition to keeping in constant communication with a student’s teachers and counselors, mentors have been known to take their charges on college visitation trips and family vacations, teach them how to drive, attend track meets, purchase school supplies, and help them navigate through often difficult and sad circumstances. “This program works because it is about relationships,” says Harvison. “We are offering them much more than an ice-cream Sunday once a month.”
In a city with some of the worst graduation rates in the country (34.6 percent, according to an Editorial Projects in Education Research Center study in 2008), there is no shortage of stories—heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Robyn Ringgold, who is a mentor to 16-year-old Jasmine Peterson, helped her mentee through difficult times last year when Jasmine’s mother died from complications from drug addiction at 30. “I was one of the first people to talk to her after her mother died,” says Ringgold. “People think these kids are ignorant or don’t want anything for themselves, but when you grow up in an environment where someone gets shot on the playground a block away from where you live or your mom dies from drug addiction, how are you supposed to go to school and learn?”
Jasmine, a spirited junior at Catholic High School, acknowledges that My Sister’s Circle has had a big impact on her life. “I don’t know what I would have done without it,” she says.
With the help of My Sister’s Circle, 18-year-old Kandice Polk, who became homeless in high school after her drug-addicted mother was evicted from her home, earned a partial scholarship to North Carolina Wesleyan College, where she just started her freshman year. Kandice’s mentor Katie Waddell bought her a laptop with the money she saved by forgoing party favors at her wedding. “I know I’m lucky to be in My Sister’s Circle,” the college student says. “This will always be a part of my life.”
On a warm summer’s day, Candace Handy, 19, who is in the My Sister’s Circle program, has come to visit Harvison and baby-sit Ryan. “My Sister’s Circle has completely changed my life,” she says. “I have had an amazing mentor, Hunter Haines, for nine years now, and we are like family.”
Looking back, Candace, who attends Howard University, admits that her transition into the program was not an easy one. She was able to attend Roland Park Country School on a scholarship through My Sister’s Circle—but hated the school at first. “I wasn’t used to being a minority in my school, but after seventh grade, I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture,” Candace recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t let other people down,’ and I stuck it out, but then I grew to love it.”
To date, Candace is a biology major and is planning to go to dental school to be an orthodontist. “It’s kind of funny,” she says, “because before I went to Roland Park, I had never even seen braces.”
Like Candace, many of the girls have earned scholarship money. This year alone, Harvison has raised about $400,000 for the girls to attend leading area private schools (Roland Park Country School, Garrison Forest School, Friends School) and an additional $40,000 for summer camp programs, not to mention helping the girls earn four-year scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities like the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Cheyney University, and Delaware State University. (So far this year, the amount of merit scholarships and need-based grants raised is $165,410.) My Sister’s Circle also helps its participants get into top area public high schools, including Baltimore City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
When Harvison reflects on the early days of the program, she is amazed at the progress. “I just started with a desk and a phone,” she says. “I have no clue how I got here.”
Harvison grew up in Timonium and attended Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville for high school. Her mother, Sharon Smith, worked in human resources for Black & Decker, while her father, Alex, was a real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker. She and her sister, Amy, were raised in a nurturing home. “I had a consistent and loving network of support with a great family and many friends,” says Harvison. “I had and have ‘a village.’”
After attending Mary Baldwin College, where she majored in communications, Harvison set her sights on New York City. She worked for a boutique Fifth Avenue public relations and advertising firm that represented some of the biggest names in fashion—including Hugo Boss and Karl Lagerfeld.
“It was a little like The Devil Wears Prada,” says Harvison with a laugh. “It was fun but soulless. I didn’t feel fulfilled and wanted to get back to who I was and what I wanted to do.”
By the early ’90s, she came home to work toward a master of arts in teaching at Johns Hopkins, earning a degree in 1996. She was also taking courses in administration at what is now Loyola University Maryland. But when a friend opened a learning center in Towson, she agreed to do the marketing.
Still, something stirred inside her to do more. Harvison’s mother switched careers midlife, turning to the ministry. Her mother was also affiliated with the Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance, a group that does outreach work in inner-city schools.
Harvison decided she wanted to get involved at Dallas Nicholas school, where her mother’s friend Irma Johnson, a member of the Alliance, was the principal. She asked Johnson for guidance.
“You don’t know what to do, so you don’t do anything,” Harvison says. “It’s almost paralyzing, but Irma Johnson was so specific about what she wanted.”
Johnson asked Harvison to work with a group of fifth-grade girls. “She said, ‘As they transition to middle school, we are losing them to the streets. A few years down the road, I see them pushing a baby carriage in the neighborhood,’” Harvison recalls.
At the time, Johnson introduced Harvison to some of the girls. “They had these big smiles,” Harvison says. “They were full of such life. [Johnson] said to me, ‘You go from seeing that light in their eyes to a lack of hope in their eyes.’”
Harvison soon came up with the idea of forming an after-school program. By fall 2000, it had evolved into a mentoring program. Eventually, Harvison left the Towson learning center and devoted her time to My Sister’s Circle—a name coined by Johnson. “I felt called to do this,” she explains.
Harvison’s initial commitment was for one year, but she realized that continuity was important for the girls. “I created the program in response to the girls’ needs from the inside out,” she says, “rather than imposing something on them.”
My Sister’s Circle has won a number of awards—including the Martin Luther King Jr. “Content of Character” Award (2010) from the Baltimore Business Journal and the Excellence in Mentoring for Community Programs award (2005) from the Maryland Mentoring Partnership. Harvison keeps most of them stacked in the closet of her small home office, choosing instead to display Ryan’s colorful artwork. “I love the awards,” she says, “but that’s not why I do this. Like the Wizard of Oz, I am like this little person upstairs who writes grants in her pajama bottoms.”
Irma Johnson, now executive director at Baltimore City Public Schools, couldn’t be prouder of her protegée. “Heather has a natural knack for knowing the needs of her girls and knowing how to fulfill them,” says Johnson. “This has never been about Heather, and the kids know it is coming from her heart.”
Harvison has come a long way from the start-up days of the program when people wanted to donate appliances—and she would deliver them herself in a borrowed truck. “The girls began to get the wrong idea of us,” she says. “We have learned that you cannot breathe for these girls. All you can do is to continue to give them that mentor or team of people who live their lives providing different examples of positive choices you can make.”
The retention rate has been almost 100 percent since the first two pilot years as My Sister’s Circle evolved into long-term mentorship. Of Harvison’s original band of seven, three are juniors in college. Even though some of the girls didn’t make it, she looks on the positive side, “You never know the impact that that one monthly trip or summer camp you sent them to might have had,” she says.
My Sister’s Circle has also affected Harvison’s own life. “Either I am a different person,” she says, “or I am who I was meant to be all along.”