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Just Love Somebody: PEAK Mentors Wants You

By Dan Cullinane

Freelance Writer

On January 6, 2020, as a requirement for his undergraduate degree in Human Services from ETSU, Shannon Payne showed up to volunteer for the Carter County Drug Prevention Coalition. Before the day ended, he had been hired to found PEAK Mentors, a new program of the coalition funded by a grant from the Department of Justice and the National Recreation and Parks Administration.

It was an impressive first day, so it’s not surprising that his answer to my first question, what is your goal as a mentor, is sharply focused and well prepared.

“To help kids negate adverse childhood experiences.”

When I point out that his answer sounds like a mission statement, he laughs and gets more specific. 

“I know the adversity these kids are going through. If you put a caring adult beside them that they can talk to, they’re gonna have a greater chance in life. It’s evidence-based. Kids with mentors are more likely to graduate from high school, to participate in after-school events, to volunteer. Their academic performance is better.”

As program director, Payne is hoping to expand the program in Johnson County; however, he needs more people willing to mentor. He is looking for both men and women over the age of 18, who can pass a background check. He provides training that focuses on identifying red flags such as self-harm and helps connect young people to resources when necessary. Mentors must be able to commit to an hour a week minimum, although most spend three to four hours a week with their mentees. Matches are made based on interest, sex, and race, and outings like hiking and fishing are encouraged.

“I have a dog trainer matched with a girl who loves animals, and man, do they get along. They spend 3-4 hours a week together, going down to animal shelters in Elizabethton, and taking dogs to get ice cream. And this girl is coming out of her shell; it’s amazing.”

While felony convictions are an automatic disqualification, lived experience is highly desirable.

“We want mentors to be able to connect with these kids in some way, either interests or life experience. When people are in tune with someone else’s emotion, it creates warmth and a connection and allows vulnerability. It allows emotions these kids wouldn’t normally feel. I didn’t feel none of that growing up. The only thing I remember feeling is a black hole that couldn’t be filled until I put drugs in it, and then that didn’t work either. “

Payne grew up in Forge Creek, and when he was six, his parents divorced.

“My dad dropped me off that night at my grandparent’s house, and I didn’t see them again for a long time.”

A few weeks later, he lost a tooth and put it under his pillow, expecting the tooth fairy to come. He did it every night for two weeks and then gave up. While he acknowledges that his grandparents made sure he was fed and housed, the emotional connection between parent and child was severed at six and never repaired.

He started smoking when he was 12. By thirteen, he was drinking Boone’s Farm, then smoking weed, then pills. Weed and pills progressed to meth, opiates, and heroin, none of it hard to come by. “It was my family that turned me on to alcohol and drugs,” he recalls.

Now clean and sober and pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, Payne uses clinical terms like adverse childhood experiences and remaking neural pathways through positive connections, but he also knows exactly what that feels like. When he says, “I know the adversity these kids are going through,” he means that he lived it, and when he talks about feeling what someone else is feeling, he’s talking about himself.

But clinical terms aside, what he wants in a mentor is simple.

“Just love somebody. Give these kids an opportunity so they can be loved so that they can be heard. Anybody white-collar, blue-collar, anybody that’s willing to love a kid and help them with questions about their life. Say your parents loved you, but their parents don’t love them. Be a caring adult to them, so they can be loved, so they can have that feeling you had.”

For more on connecting with PEAK Mentors, call Shannon Payne at (423) 707-9207 or email [email protected]