Joe and Carol Gravante, residents of Heritage Isles in New Tampa, are empty nesters who say that God gave them a new purpose after their three boys grew up and left home.
After raising their sons and hosting at least two dozen foreign exchange students, including 12 who stayed with them for a year and attended local schools, the Gravantes have turned their attention to mentoring at-risk kids in our community.
“Carol and I had started working with a mentoring group in Tampa several years ago, and when we first started we had no idea what we were doing,” Joe explains. “The training that we received was more about how the foster care system works, the formalities, not how to actually deal with the kids themselves. There was nothing available (to teach us) how to communicate and how to handle certain situations you might be put in that are different from raising your own kids.”
So, Joe says, he and Carol shared resources with other people they knew who also were mentoring. His sister-in-law in Missouri, for example, who helped him find school resources for a tenth grader who needed help to pass his classes. Joe also did online searches for answers to questions he had, and he tried different techniques with the teenagers he was mentoring.
Now, Joe and Carol have taken their experiences and developed a curriculum to help people learn skills that will help them be good mentors. After teaching the class Joe developed last year, it will be offered again this year at Bridgeway Church, located at 30660 Wells Rd. in Wesley Chapel. The classes started September 25 and meet every other Monday. There is no cost to attend, and childcare is provided for people who sign up for the class and need it.
Class topics include effective communication, anger management, time management, bullying, dealing with attitudes, when to say “yes” and “no” and much more.
“Really, these classes are good for anyone who’s raising kids, or even in the workplace,” says Carol.
Joe says they also are currently coming up with a schedule of opportunities for people who want to serve their community and help kids, but don’t have the time to commit to mentoring a child one hour every week.
“We have two focuses,” explains Carol. “Some people want to get involved right away and do something purposeful.”
For those people, the couple is organizing events where anyone can come out and interact with at-risk kids in a large group setting. Joe and Carol say they have a friend with a horse ranch where they have taken groups of kids, and volunteers help to lead the horses and play with the kids.
“People find it’s quite fun!” Carol says. “Some people aren’t comfortable with the idea of working with at-risk kids. They worry they have too many limitations or the kids have too much baggage, but the events help people get more comfortable until they are ready for a one-on-one relationship with the students.”
Their goal is to encourage more people to provide that time to help students who need it. After all, Joe says, every child he’s mentored has benefitted from the experience.
“These kids just need time and attention,” he says.
Joe knows that because he once benefitted from mentoring, too.
“I had this (U.S. military) Colonel who changed my entire life,” he says. “I grew up in the city of Pittsburgh (PA). It was a steel mill town, and that’s all I knew. When I joined the military, this amazing man took the time and energy to make me see I could be so much more than what I was. He mentored me from 20 years old until 30-something. He was the one who really set me on the right path.”
Joe says the cycle of being mentored, and now being in a position to pay his experiences forward and serve his community, continues with the kids he’s impacted.
“I see the kids I’ve mentored already giving back in their communities,” he says. “It’s so good to see that you can make a difference that way, no matter how old you are.”
For more information or to register for the mentoring class, contact Carol at (813) 753-8338.