He’s been mentoring kids and changing lives for 18 years. But George Wagner still has more to do.
George Wagner sipped his cocktail as he made the acquaintance of other guests attending the Sun City party. He’d recently retired after 35 years at 3M in various management positions across the country and overseas, and he was just settling into life in Georgetown, Texas. He had a fancy corporate ring to commemorate where he’d been, but where he was going in retirement was, at best, fuzzy in George’s mind.
“Have you considered mentoring?” a guest asked George.
Since that question at a cocktail party 18 years ago, George has spent thousands of hours mentoring students, as well as working with parents, GISD staff, Boys & Girls Club, Brookwood in Georgetown, Head Start, and Juvenile Justice to build positive futures for children in Georgetown.
“Probably 80 percent of the kids I mentor are underprivileged and academically challenged,” says George. “I think I can help them so they don’t have to go through what I went through as a child in Brooklyn. Anything that they have experienced—abuse, deprivation, social issues—I experienced myself as a kid. I know what these kids go through.”
As one of seven children, and son to an absentee alcoholic father, George found it easier and safer to avoid spending time at home. While George’s father wasn’t around much, his abusive behavior—directed primarily toward George’s mother—made their tenement house unsafe and unpredictable.
School wasn’t much better for George. Teachers shamed him for not knowing how to read; their use of physical and emotional punishment created a hostile learning environment. “That was the common teaching style in those days at our school,” George recalls, “but it deprived me of self-esteem and confidence in school.”
Since school and home life were toxic environments, George found his safe haven on Brooklyn’s streets, playing sports under schoolyard lights. He and other neighborhood children organized baseball and basketball teams and other activities.
“Search Institute, an organization in Minnesota, has identified 40 developmental assets—key ingredients that a child should have to get through life and become a healthy, caring, responsible adult,” says George. “The more assets you have as a child, the better chance you have in life. Well, as a kid, I had maybe two or three: I had my mother, athletics, and my work ethic. I always worked two jobs.”
His work ethic most likely came from his mother, a strong, positive presence in George’s life, and his first model of a true mentor. “My mother was one of 14 children,” he explains. “At 13, after her own mother died, she quit school to run the house. She was never educated, and we never had a book in the house, but she talked about the value of education and instilled in me a respect for everyone, particularly women. She had seven children by the time she was 30, and despite her hardships, she went through life with humor, honesty and integrity. . . . She left us too soon.”
When George was 16, he spotted a poster of a broad-shouldered Marine decked out in dress blues and decorated in impressive ribbons. “If you look for a turning point in your life—and everyone has one—that was mine,” George says. He enlisted immediately, without his mother’s signature, and spent the next three years as a Marine corporal.
The Marine Corps provided organization, structure, discipline, focus, and purpose, core values that George now espouses to his mentees and Junior University ethics groups. After receiving an honorable discharge, he attended college at night under the GI Bill.
Throughout the past 18 years, George has routinely focused on mentoring four or five children per year, sticking with them for the long term and proving to his mentees that he’s a reliable adult on whom they can depend. Among four kids whom George started mentoring years ago, two recently completed college, and two others are currently in college.
A fifth child, Victor, didn’t make it to college. But he has an impressive story in his own right. “Victor was an outstanding young man,” George recalls. “He had a passion and love for life.” Unfortunately, Victor also had brain cancer, was 80 percent blind, and was partially paralyzed in both legs.
“There were many times I felt like he was mentoring me,” George continues. “I remember one time he asked me very plainly if I’d take care of his mother and younger brother when he died. He was all business,” recalls George, with a smile.
George promised Victor that he would, and he lived up to that promise. After Victor passed, his brother Darwin became George’s mentee. During their sessions, George coached Darwin in lessons on ethics and resiliency and fanned his flame of interest in culinary arts.
“Darwin is now 22 and has a culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of Austin,” George says proudly. “He’s working to repay his mother for helping with his tuition.”
18 years of mentoring . . . and counting
Since the demand in Georgetown for reliable mentors is high, George has branched out beyond one-on-one mentoring to start a group mentorship program called Junior University. Supported by Sun City, GISD, the Georgetown Project, Chamber of Commerce, and local churches, Junior University consists of special-project mentoring groups of 10 to 12 fifth-grade girls and boys at Mitchell and Williams elementary schools. Each Good Deed Club, as the groups are called, meets weekly during lunchtime to learn and complete community service projects that benefit children, family, and business.
In the 2014–2015 schoolyear, students completed fundraising projects that served the homeless, Wounded Warriors, and the Williamson County Animal Shelter.
“In Junior University, we discuss issues in their lives, like single parenthood, divorce, maybe same-sex parents. We want to get these kids to think for themselves, make good decisions, and then we talk about the issue in terms of core values,” George says.
Because many of the children in Junior University are of Hispanic heritage, George assembled a roll call of Hispanic role models, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Hispanic Congressional Medal of Honor winners like Leroy Petry and Maximo Yabes, for students to look up to. “We stress ethics, problem solving, and data-driven critical thinking,” says George, “with the main goal of getting them a solid education and equipping them for the future.”
Over the past 18 years, George Wagner has personally contributed more than $40,000 out of pocket toward mentoring and Junior University expenses. To donate to George Wagner’s Kids—a private, taxable account—and help George serve more children, contact George at Marine5457@suddenlink.net. Read more about George’s work at http://www.recognizegood.org/legend/george-wagner/.
To view Search Institute’s list of “40 Developmental Assets for Middle Childhood (Ages 8–12), visit www.moed.bm/resources/Documents/40Assets_MC_0.pdf.