To Dedric Dennist, a 39-year-old electrical engineer in Bloomington, Indiana, mentoring young people is a commitment fueled not so much by the need to give back as it is his by passion for paying forward.
“I guess I really don’t think about the big picture all the time,” said Dennist. “But long term, if I can educate every kid I work with, they’ll have less problems. If they can deal with conflict, there are less fights in school. If they know how to study and why it’s important, their grades will improve and they’ll have more options in college. If they turn around and help their community, that’s big too. I think we can never really measure the impact giving back has, but the ripple effect on the future for all of us is huge.”
The majority of Dennist’s 250-plus annual volunteer hours of service are dedicated to working with young people. Issues range from practical – “If nobody ever shows you how to set a table or tie a tie, how are you supposed to know?” to nutrition and obesity, education disparity and poverty. “The kids call it ‘adulting,’ – as in acting like an adult. We talk about that a lot.”
A volunteer and board member for numerous nonprofits, Dennist is a Big Brother, supports Real MENtors Read, mentoring in the area of literacy, and is past president of Blacks In Government, for which he is now a regional vice president. He’s director of community outreach for Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., tutors for National Counsel for the Education of Black Children and is the Worshipful Master of Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons. His experience as a single dad raising his own son, who is now a junior at Indiana University, often comes into play, as does his experience as an athlete when coaching a local high school track team.
Reared by a single mom raising four children, Dennist wasn’t exposed to volunteer service until he was in middle school. “I was always curious about why people acted the way they did or made the choices they did. It took some time for me to realize that there are so many factors that these kids are dealing with. Helping them sort through things and giving them more options is the most powerful thing we can do.”
Moving from his native Milwaukee to Bloomington in 2001 gave Dennist the impetus to focus more than ever on volunteerism. “I was going to work and coming home – that’s boring. I didn’t know very many people. Volunteering got me into the community, introduced me to all kinds of people I never would have met. That’s just one example of how there are so many benefits to the volunteer, besides the heart warming feeling you get when you know you make a difference.”
It’s a path he recommends to all of “his” kids, in hopes that they will continue to pay it forward. “You don’t have to spend a lot of time to volunteer – Big Brothers just asks one hour a week. We can all afford that. Dr. Martin Luther King said it best. “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” People don’t always remember what you say or what you do, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel.”