January is National Mentoring Month. In honor of this special occasion, we sat down with Donovan Forrest EDU '20, College of Education student and founder of the mentorship non-profit DonCARES of Philadelphia, Inc. Founded in 2015, DonCARES is dedicated to helping students in North Philadelphia achieve their dreams through education, mentorship and service. To listen to the audio from our conversation, press the play button below. The transcript of the conversation can be found below the audio recording.
[Music plays - "The Strip" by Mela]
Heather Goodman (HG): Hello listeners. My name is Heather Goodman and in honor of National Mentoring Month, I am talking with Donovan Forrest, Temple University College of Education student and founder of the mentorship non-profit DonCARES. It's an absolute pleasure to be with you, Donovan. Can you just start off by letting the listeners know your class level, major, and where you're from?
Donovan Forrest (DF): Thank you, Heather for introducing me and for the opportunity. My name's Donovan Forrest. I'm actually a native of Philadelphia; grew up in North Philadelphia. I'm a product of the Philadelphia school system. I'm studying secondary education and history at Temple University's College of Education and I'm a senior graduating in May 2020.
HG: And so, just starting off... What are some activities you are involved in at Temple?
DF: A little bit about me, I'm a nontraditional student at this point. I've been at Temple since Fall 2015 and before that, I actually studied at Millersville University for two years before transferring to Temple. So, I've been at college about six and a half years now due to just pacing myself, taking part-time credits, muscle, [I] receive services in DRS, so I think that contributes to me taking a little longer time than some other people. But, some of the activities I'm interested in is... you know, I'm just a student focusing a lot on my non-profit and I spend time with the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It's a civil rights organization here at Temple University and nationwide.
HG: Great, and then, what are some activities you're involved in outside of Temple?
DF: So, outside of Temple, right now I am the founder and executive director of a non-profit that I founded, DonCARES of Philadelphia, Inc. We provide free tutoring and mentoring services to students in the School District of Philadelphia. And in particular, we help connect campus to community by matching high school students at the U School at 7th and Norris Streets with college students of color here at Temple University.
HG: Being that it is National Mentoring Month, what is your experience with mentorship?
DF: I was born and raised in North Philadelphia. I spent a lot of my days, you know, in programs such as the Boy Scouts at my church in North Philly. I was mentored myself but, as an adolescent, I dealt with a lot of behavior issues that landed me in places that I didn't want to be in. I spent my high school career in four different high schools, one of those being an alternative school before graduating in 2013. But, through that experience, I actually had exposure to a lot of mentors, people that showed me that I could, people that believed in me, people that were just there for me when I needed someone to talk to. And through that experience, I developed a passion for mentoring myself. I became… at 16 years old or 17... I decided to become a mentor in my community, in my social spaces, and I decided to do that because of those who impacted me positively growing up.
HG: So, your background as a mentor... You touched on that you were a mentor early on...
DF: Yeah, definitely. So I guess growing up as an adolescent... I mean, first of all, my birth mother was addicted to drugs and as a result of that, you know, you grew up with these idiosyncrasies that you can't quite put a finger on. Like why I act like this or why I have these certain challenges. So, I guess having those challenges and having those obstacles that you have to overcome... when people come into your life, you're really receptive to what they have to say about you, the services that they provide. You can literally see through who has been there for you, who's being truthful and who can actually motivate you to become a better person, a better version of yourself. So, having that - those services - as early as like, middle school. By seventh and eighth grade, I had a lot of mentors. Throughout high school, I had a lot of mentors and when I became a junior, when I was at alternative school, I kinda turned over a new leaf and decided to mentor those in my community in my school that I was in. By the time I hit 17 years old, I was a mentor at the Department of Labor Mentoring Program at Samuel Fels [High School]. I did that for the entirety of the school year. After that, I was volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club and I actually landed a job from that volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club. We're looking at summer 2013. And by the time the summer of 2013-2014 came around, I became a first-year experience mentor at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. I did first-year access, adjusting to the rigor of college... things like that... From that, I decided that hey, I want to take this even... I guess... further and start my own non-profit after I transfer from Millersville and here I am.
HG: Are there any mentors that stand out in your life?
DF: Without a doubt. I think that a lot of the mentors that I looked at were in the spaces that I grew up in. I grew up in a religious institution and those individuals, being in North Philadelphia, were also civil activists. They had their own businesses, they had their own community development incorporations and things like that. So, when it came time for me to start my own non-profit, I reached out to someone that I knew in my religious community. And I said, "Hey, I'm interested in starting a non-profit. Do you have any advice?" They kinda took me under their wing and they currently serve as a mentor now. Those are the people that I knew growing up as well, so it wasn't just like, "hey, I met you when I wanted to start my own business." But they knew me as a child. They knew me when I had these obstacles and didn't judge me and then they showed me what was possible through just connection and investment.
HG: Do you have any Temple mentors?
DF: Without a doubt. I think that when I first got to Temple, I was looking for individuals who were older than me that could honestly serve as a mentor. I think the first people that I actually ran into were my TAs in the Department of Africology. I fell under their wing and I just started to talk to them about Africology, about history, about being in education, and a lot of mentors now are PhD students, grad-level students in the Department of Africology and History.
HG: Obviously DonCARES is huge part of your life, can you share with the audience what DONCares is and how you came up with it?
DF: DonCARES of Philadelphia, Inc. is a school-based non-profit that matches high school students in North Philadelphia with college students of color from Temple University. We work in two schools right now. We work at the U School at 7th and Norris StreetS and Samuel Fels High School at 5500 Langdon Street in the Oxford Circle neighborhood of Philadelphia and it's also my alma mater. So, we match high school students at the U School with mentors and we do resume development and workforce training at Samuel Fels High School. But, I came up with the name DonCARESsimply from the name that my birth mother gave me. I'm really transparent about some of the things that I've overcome. [My] birth mom was addicted to crack cocaine towards the middle of the nineties. And, although I was put into the [foster care] system shortly after I was born, she gave me something that I'll never forget. She named me "Don Care". So, her name was Leslie Murphy and she named me "Don Care Murphy". I got adopted by a school teacher who taught special education in the School District of Philadelphia for over 33 years and her name was Vanessa. So, Vanessa Forrest named me Donovan; she kept the "Don" part... Don and Vanessa... Donovan Forrest. That's the name that she gave me and that's the name used 20 years after I was having all of these challenges as an adolescent. I use that testimony and turned it into something positive. Because, growing up in North Philadelphia, having these obstacles of police, you know, you're looked at as a problem in the community. I decided that once I got to college, I would give back to that same community from which I came from, but in a positive light. And I named it DonCARES as a testimony and something powerful and positive to give back to those in my community.
HG: With DonCARES, what does the average day look like for a mentor and a mentee?
DF: The average day, it doesn't really stray away from the typical day of just being a high school student or college student. Our mentors... what our organization is, is we are... our parent organization is Big Brothers & Big Sisters. We're based off of their motto of going in an hour a week every month for about 7-10 months and actually developing a relationship with multiple stages with a youth. You know, being empathetic, being nonjudgemental, listening more than you speak and things like that. So, we typically meet with our students during their advisory period or their lunch period at the high school. So, as college students, we have flexible schedules. We go in and set up a time when we can meet them when they're not in class, but they're still in school. We go in there and we listen to them, we work on resumes... whatever they want to work on and that's when we go in there. But typically it looks very similar to what it looks like as a college student, as a high school student. You're either working or you're in school, and we just find a time to meet that works for both of them.
HG: What are those relationships like with your mentors and mentees?
DF: So it's a really, it's more like a brother-sister role, but it's not too brotherly-sisterly-like. We're connected on social media. I mean, depending on what family you come from, that may not happen anyway. But, it's more so like an older role model, someone who's non-judgemental. Not a parent, not a teacher, but someone who is older than you and somebody that can help guide you to where you want to be in life. It's really a non-judgemental relationship. It's whatever you really make it, but we also give the youth voice and choice over their activities.
HG: What is your favorite memory as a mentor?
DF: Wow. That's a lot.
HG: It's a loaded question [laughter].
DF: I think that being executive director, you build relationships not only with your mentors who are college students as well, but your mentees. Whether that's 15-20 mentors, mentees you have in the program at the time. You kind of serve as a mentor to all of them. It's really a humbling situation that you serve as a mentor to your contemporaries. I'm 24 years old and when I first started the program, I was 20 and a lot of the mentors that were coming in were 18,19, 20 as well. Them being able to look up to you says a lot about your character and things like that. I think my... I guess my best memory of being a mentor had to have been the time when my mentee told me that he got a job with the resume we created. I think that was the biggest thing that really stuck out to me and saying, hey, that work that we spent creating a resume, working through job applications really made a difference. I think that was my most exciting part of being a mentor.
HG: So, we are in the College of Education. You are a College of Education student. Just curious, what is your favorite experience that you've had at the College of Education?
DF: I think my favorite experience in the College of Education had to have been getting to the point where I finished all of my undergrad coursework and I could move onto student teaching. I mean, I thought that candidacy was great, you know, getting candidacy, but actually becoming someone who could say, I've been wanting to be a teacher since I was 17 years old, being able to see that point where you're done all your undergrad work after six and a half years... Now I can become a student-teacher and make an impression on whatever school population I'm working in and also, move forward and actually pursue that dream. I think that was my favorite memory of being in the College of Ed.
HG: You are graduating this year, correct? HG: What do you plan on doing after graduating from Temple?
DF: Yeah, aw man. Going to dinner with my family! [Laughter]. No, I'm playing. My plan for after graduation is to become a high school teacher, secondary ed. social studies, work in the School District of Philadelphia, primarily in North Philadelphia... But, I think more so like a smaller school setting, nothing too big. I know Northeast High School would be huge. I went there. It's over 3,000 students... probably like 6,000 now. I think that that's one of the biggest things I'm looking forward to. Just becoming a high school teacher... You know, working with students as a young professional, as an educator, as someone who cares about them and wants to see them succeed. That's one of my biggest aspirations.
HG: Again, it is National Mentoring Month. What advice would you give to people interested in becoming mentors or looking for mentorship themselves?
DF: I think the biggest thing I would advise potential mentors is to understand that mentorship isn't a way of schooling someone who's younger or even fixing them. I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions that we come into mentor relationships with is hey, I want to fix this young person because they may be off track in school or they may not be focused, they may have behavior issues. There's no real way that we can fix someone; the only way we can help align them with their goals that they set for themselves is to just be there, to show up and be an active listener and also be non-judgemental. I think that those are some of the biggest factors of a good mentor: someone that shows up, someone that's accessible, someone that is non-judgemental, and someone that's consistent and actually cares about the youth. Another thing that I would recommend for someone looking for mentorship themselves is having some type of idea of where you want to go. Focus on that, reflect on where you want to see yourself. You may not have a concrete answer, but have somewhere where you want to go and look for people in that field that you want to actually explore and get involved in.
HG: For people that are interested in being a part of DonCARES, how would they go about doing that?
DF: I think that the first thing they would do is go on our website - DonCARESPhilly.org. It's a website I've been working on for the past 2-3 years. Go on our website and look at the "Mentor Expectations" and then if it fits something that you're looking for, look at our mission, look at our visions. Is that something you're interested in? And then, apply under "Volunteer Opportunities" and someone will set up an interview with you.
HG: It was a pleasure talking to you today. Happy National Mentoring Month!
DF: Happy National Mentoring Month!
HG: Thank you so much!
DF: Yeah, no problem.
[Music plays - "The Strip" by Mela]