A Northern Virginia man is being honored as the Virginia Mentor of the Year.
Robert Sowell is the vice president of community relations for Apple Federal Credit Union. He's a husband and father of two. But for nine years now, he's been taking a weekly break from his busy schedule, stopping into Providence Elementary School for an hour each week to serve as a mentor.
"He's almost like a celebrity to the children," said Shelley Prince, the MentorWorks specialist for the Fairfax County Public School. "Most of them call him Mr. Robert, and they are very excited to see him. They light up."
On a recent Thursday, a fifth grader named Khalid greeted Sowell with a bright smile the featured new braces.
"I like the braces man," said Sowell as the two met outside the school cafeteria. "Ready to go upstairs and eat? Let's go up and have some fun."
Sowell is Khalid's mentor. The two were paired up at the start of the year when the fifth grader was new to the school and had some discipline issues.
"You would never know it, based upon the beautiful smile he has today, that he was shy coming into this. I think he was just a little withdrawn. He was trying to find his way amongst the students here at school," explained Sowell.
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Kahlid remembers his initial reaction to the idea of a mentor.
"I was scared, because I get shy every time" he said.
Their weekly routine is simple. They chat about schoolwork, family and friends, goals and then they play a game. Khalid's choice at this meeting was Connect Four.
Providence counselors said by their third or fourth session together, Kahlid was a different student in classroom.
"You talk about building a community, and you do that by giving back one students at at time," said Sowell.
The counselors said his influence on children is invaluable.
"I've noticed significant change in a lot of their personalities, their ability to do more work. They are receiving less discipline referrals," said Bissan Alnaji, a Providence counselor
Kahlid Is one of two students Sowell is mentoring this year. He's still working with a middler schooler he first met at Providence.
The Providence principal, counselors & Mentorworks' Prince nominated Sowell for the Virginia Mentor of Year Award.
"I feel that we haven't been able to thank him enough," said Counselor Sarah Rupp. "This was one way for us to show him how much of an impact he's made."
Sowell said being named Virginia Mentor of the year is a great honor, but his reward comes from the kids.
"They stay with you forever and that's important. I take a little bit from each of the kids I've mentored with me."
When asked to describe his relationship with the the man he was one a little frightened of, Khalid quickly responds, "A friend. Best friends."