Foster kids find a mentor–and woodworking skills, too

Mike Sublette, a volunteer mentor with Arizonans for Children, is a retired shop teacher. His "Believe and Achieve" program is a way for young men to learn woodworking and life skills. (Wrangler News photo by Alex J. Walker)
Mike Sublette, a volunteer mentor with Arizonans for Children, is a retired shop teacher. His “Believe and Achieve” program is a way for young men to learn woodworking and life skills. (Wrangler News photo by Alex J. Walker)

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By Joyce Coronel

Faced with the heartbreaking knowledge that more than 17,000 children in Arizona are in foster care, most people  might sigh and throw up their hands, discouraged by what seems an insurmountable challenge.

Not Mike Sublette.

The former shop teacher became a mentor for Arizonans for Children, a volunteer organization that assists kids who have been placed in the state’s foster care system. As he learned about the various programs the organization runs, he noticed something.

“They have a multiplicity of programs for things like dance, cooking, that kind of stuff but they didn’t really have anything for the most at-risk kids in my opinion, and that’s teenage boys,” Sublette said.

With a garage full of power tools and other equipment, it dawned on him that he could offer boys in foster care a unique opportunity. That’s how the Believe and Achieve program was born.

“I thought, you know what? I could teach these kids how to work with their hands, how to build something, how to plan and actually make something that they want to make,” Sublette said. The kids attend with their mentors and each student starts out with a $25 credit for supplies.

Once they’ve used up the $25 credit, they have to buy the materials. “I do that for a reason,” Sublette said. “I tell them, ‘Look, sometimes things in life are free but eventually there’s always a cost. What I’m trying to teach them is responsibility.”

When a project is completed, the kids have the option to keep it, give it as a gift or sell it. To that end, Sublette is teaching them how to construct a board game known as Canoga or Shut the Box. The game originated in European pubs in the 18th century and involves dice and a series of tiles with numbers. “It’s a fun, fun game. I’ve played it with like eight or nine people before and it’s really a hoot,” Sublette said.

He’s put a twist on the game, hoping his students can sell their homemade wares to people with particular interests such as motorcycles, fishing, golf or hunting. A game aimed at bikers, for example, would be dubbed “Kick Stands Up.”

The games will be a diversion for those who play them, but mostly it’s about helping the foster kids Sublette mentors.

Laura Pahules, the tutor mentor outreach coordinator for Arizonans for Children, thinks Sublette is onto something with his idea.

“I think Mike’s program would be a huge success and I think the kids can only benefit from that,” Pahules said. “It will expose them to something new, something they may not have ever been around and also give them real life skills that they could potentially turn into a wage earning.”

She should know. Pahules has worked with foster kids for years and knows how important it is for children to have role models who engage them in activities that promote development and just plain fun.

“Oftentimes they have zero parental figures in their lives. Our mentors become the one consistent thing in this child’s life for at least a year. Even when they are out doing fun things, they are teaching life skills — how to order in a restaurant, how to interact with people, or what a healthy relationship looks like, things the kids may never have been exposed to,” Pahules said.

And though the children in foster care reap the benefits of having a caring adult mentor in their lives, the adults are also rewarded for their efforts: they begin to see the world through a new set of eyes—those of a child in need.

Recently, Pahules was speaking with a 7-year-old boy in a foster care group home. She asked him about his favorite food. “He said blueberries, but then he said, ‘I’ve never had one, but they look really good.’ That killed me.” Pahules made sure to stop by later with a flat of blueberries. “Think about that. These are basic things that these kids are not exposed to, the everyday things we all take for granted.”

Things like a tool chest, screwdriver or hammer. Things that Mike Sublette is more than willing to share with foster children and their mentors.

Arizonans for Children currently has about 100 mentors but is hoping to gain more before the year is out. An interview, background check and training are required.

“Our mentors have such a positive experience,” Pahules said. “We pair them with the youth that have the same likes and interests and are geographically in the same direction.”

Tempe resident Kay McCarthy is president of Arizonans for Children. She’s hoping Arizonans will consider helping the organization in its effort to assist children. “We’re a qualifying foster care charitable organization,” McCarthy said.  “Donors are entitled to a tax credit of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for married couples filing jointly.”

Information: arizonansforchildre.org or call 602-252-2270

Joyce Coronel
Joyce Coronel has been interviewing and writing stories since she was 12, and she’s got the scrapbooks to prove it. The mother of five grown sons and native of Arizona is passionate about local news and has been involved in media since 2002, coming aboard at Wrangler News in 2015. Joyce believes strongly that newspapers are a lifeline to an informed public and a means by which neighbors can build a sense of community—vitally important in today’s complex world.

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