There is a moment that every parent can relate to: the moment of letting go.

It happens the moment a child is born and continues throughout a lifetime.

It starts with wobbly, uncertain baby steps, and transforms into confident strides. These are the strides that move kids forward: to a school bus, to a classroom, to graduation, and to the future.

As a parent, those steps are the ones you live for. It’s how you count the hours and months and years. Tie your shoelaces this way, you might say. Here’s how to take a jump shot, how to fix a tire, how to apologize, how to dress for the first job.

It is a constant transition, of teaching and letting go, of catch and of release. There’s no greater high than seeing the success, no greater pain than seeing the struggle.

It’s an all too familiar sequence for the staff of COMPASS Youth Collaborative.

In partnership with parents, the staff serve as mentors, giving youth the additional support needed to reach their potential.

For the COMPASS Peacebuilders, these connections run deep. The staff often find youth at their most vulnerable moment. They shepherd them through a three-year program, building a rapport of trust and understanding along the way.

The bond between COMPASS Peacebuilder Angel Torres and his mentee Emilio Lopez is a testament to the program’s impact.

Emilio was a high school sophomore with plenty of potential, and a standout basketball player known throughout Hartford’s city courts.

He was also navigating a series of challenges and knew he needed help.

“I got into a fight,” Emilio recalls, “and I remember a friend telling me about Peacebuilders, and how they could help keep me out of trouble. I decided to go to a meeting, and joined that day.”

What struck him most was the way staff spoke to him. “They automatically talk to you like you are family – a brother or a sister, or a best friend. So I already felt like I belonged.”

Under Angel’s tutelage, Emilio established a game plan: one that started with keeping his grades up and making better choices in his social life.

It is a relationship defined by honesty and perseverance. Every detail matters.

“Angel tells you everything straight up. He’s honest, and he cares a lot about me,” notes Emilio. “The COMPASS Peacebuilders staff are on top of everything – and I mean everything,” he adds with a laugh. “If you need a haircut, they tell you. If you’re hanging out with the wrong crew, they know. If you failed a math test, they expect you to ask for extra help. The Peacebuilders want you to succeed.”

From the beginning, Angel built trust by ensuring that Emilio always knew he was available. “If he has a problem at 11:00PM, he knows he can call me,” says Angel. “We’ve had so many conversations over the years about different situations, how to handle them, how to rise above them.”

The advice comes well founded. Having spent his younger years running the streets, Angel decided to make a significant change in adulthood. For him, the work of COMPASS Peacebuilders is both deeply personal and deeply motivating.

“Kids like Emilio challenge me to work harder. They don’t always say it, but I know they’re listening. And then you have a young person like Emilio, who not only listens but takes the advice, it’s almost mind blowing. It makes you realize how much of an impact we adults have.”

Diego Lopez, a fellow COMPASS Peacebuilder, agrees. “I always tell people that for as much as this program helps the kids, it’s also helping us. It provides us with a second chance, and an opportunity to give back to a community we love so much.”

The mantle of service is not lost on Emilio. He could have left the program long ago. An analytical person by nature, Emilio learned the core life skills and got on top of his grades. He continued to attend as a youth leader. The other youth look up to him, and the staff rely on him to help guide his peers.

Serving as a student leader was another capstone in an already successful senior year. In the weeks prior, Emilio graduated from Hartford High School. He’s inclined toward a career in aviation mechanics, and it’s a path he will pursue in Florida. His mom recently relocated, and Emilio decided to move, too. “My mom has always been there for me – I really owe a lot to her. And I’m looking forward to something different.”

Angel knew the move to Florida was imminent. This next phase will bring new opportunities, and he knows Emilio is ready for whatever comes. Yet it still feels bittersweet. Angel, like the rest of the staff, can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia. COMPASS Peacebuilder Janita Negron sums up the sentiment: “We’re all going to miss him. Especially for the other youth, Emilio’s the glue. He really is a great person.”

For his last day in town, the staff decided to throw a surprise barbecue. Janira Parks baked a cake. Diego, Brian, Will, Lou, and Manny brought hotdogs and hamburgers for the grill. The youth showed up. Angel made his last trip to pick Emilio up, thinking along the way about the kid who suddenly grew up, and the time that had passed so quickly.

That evening was about as perfect as they come: full of golden sunshine and joking banter and a feeling that the afternoon could stretch on forever. The teenagers played basketball ahead of an upcoming tournament; Emilio looked on. They took group photos and selfies and reminisced. Emilio blew out the candles on his Funfetti cake and shook hands with every staff member.

At long last, it came time to say a momentary goodbye to the mentor who had changed his life. They hugged, and Angel shared a few words of encouragement. Call me whenever you need, he says. This isn’t goodbye, he says. But as Angel turns away – a moment captured in the accompanying photo – his face says it all.

By: Clare Timmis
Feature Photo Credit: Angel Torres, 2016 | Clare Timmis