Austin and Emily Walker: Mentoring at Mercy Street

In the United States, millions of children are growing up in fatherless homes. There is a lack of family structure in the inner-city as a result of decades of systemic oppression. Because of this, children are more likely to drop out of school, join gangs, become teenage parents, and try drugs. Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who has dedicated his life to studying sociology (among other things), will tell you that kids in these situations need “someone in their corner” to overcome the environmental adversity they face. Due to the environmental obstacles these inner-city homes face, it is not always possible for that “someone” to be the parent.

Mercy Street, a Christian nonprofit in Dallas, addresses this issue head-on. The mentorship program at Mercy Street exists to raise up Christian leaders in West Dallas who will make their community a better place. The program consists of four components. First, there is one-on-one discipleship for each student. The student gets linked up to a caring, Christ-following  adult who will help his or her walk through life, offer support when needed, and meet with the student on a regular basis. Second, there is the Mercy Street sports program. Students can sign up for sports teams as a way to engage in their community and grow in their skills in an extracurricular activity. Third, there is the leadership institute, which is a summer intensive that students can apply to each year. Fourth is the Mercy Street Bike Shop. By pairing up mentors and mentees, Mercy Street addresses the need for “someone in their corner” while also facilitating a mutually-transforming relationship.

When Austin and Emily Walker got engaged, they didn’t yet know that a boy from West Dallas named Ronnie would become a part of their new family. At the time, Emily was living in North Carolina while searching for a job in Dallas, where Austin already lived. During one of her trips to Dallas, Emily learned about Mercy Street, a nonprofit organization in West Dallas, and she was immediately intrigued. “I had always wanted to live in the inner-city, and I had tried to move there twice, but my parents thought it was unsafe for a single girl to move there,” Emily said. “So when Austin and I were long-distance, I was visiting him in Dallas and I met the Stehlik family who had sold their house in Plano. They had moved to West Dallas because they were Mercy Street mentors and wanted to be closer to their mentees.” At the end of that summer, Austin and Emily were engaged, and the Stehliks asked her to come live with them in West Dallas during the engagement.

 Photo by Hunter Lacey.

Photo by Hunter Lacey.

Emily recalls conversations with Mr. Stehlik discussing the family’s move to West Dallas. The topic always circled back to Mercy Street. It was, “without a doubt,” his favorite place to spend time. By this point, she had heard on many separate occasions about Mercy Street, and decided to inquire about working there. She called that day and they had just created three new jobs. Emily took that as a sign and interviewed. She began working as the Communications and Events Coordinator for Mercy Street in November 2010.

Instead of starting out with Mercy Street as a mentor, Austin became a baseball coach through their sports program. That’s when the Walkers met Ronnie. With Austin coaching and Emily attending games, the Walkers naturally grew close to Ronnie. He was a third grader at the time, and mentors and mentees typically don’t get matched until the fourth grade.

“Ronnie stuck out to us. We had already developed a relationship with him, and we knew we wanted to mentor him,” Austin said.

 Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

Ronnie is the son of a hard-working single mother. His mother loves and cares for him, but even as a third grader, he wanted that extra mentorship. That “someone in his corner.”

It soon became clear that the Walkers would become Ronnie’s mentors. Their time spent with him increased naturally as they grew more excited by the promise of this long-term relationship. It is through these long-term committed relationships that disciples are made.

“At first, I was confused by these two people who wanted to hang out with me all the time,” Ronnie said. “But I had always wanted a mentor, and asked [my mom] about it all the time.”

Austin and Emily officially became Ronnie’s mentor when he was in the third grade. They began attending even more of his sporting events, and they started driving him to and from those games and practices. Ronnie didn’t enjoy the “super healthy food” they cooked for him initially, but now he likes it. He was frustrated when they forced him to do homework, but now he knows that it’s better to just do the work rather than get behind in school.

“Over time,” Ronnie shared, “I started to like their food more…and, with school, I just realized that I need to do the work.”

The unfamiliarity of these two new people in his life soon became what was comfortable. Their relationship, though, like any relationship, was not without setbacks. Ronnie would get into trouble at school, and the school would call Austin or Emily.

 Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

“I picked him up because he had gotten detention and skipped it. I went over to get him and took him back. Ronnie was so mad at me, but I told him he needed to pay the price and get it over with,” Emily shared, now able to laugh about it with Ronnie.

Ronnie remembers the times Austin and Emily would get upset with him, and he understands why it was often inevitable.

Austin helped Ronnie get his application into Heights, a charter high school in West Dallas. Once he was accepted, there was a lot of “fighting the system” initially, as Austin put it. But every single year, Ronnie grew to appreciate school and love athletics more. With that, Ronnie found his groove and now excels there.

Ronnie is currently on the A/B honor roll and the Walkers receive phone calls with enthusiastic reports of his good behavior. Ronnie is a talented athlete, and the Walkers along with their son Stocks, have a great time attending each of his games.

“This has changed our life and given it so much meaning,” Emily said. “We’ve found a lot of joy in being with Ronnie. There are days when it’s hard and we get upset with each other, but I wish that everyone could have a mentoring relationship because of how awesome it’s been for us.”

“It’s been good having an extra home and extra support,” Ronnie shared.

 Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

Photo courtesy of the Walker family.

Ronnie and the Walkers have traveled together — like a trip Washington DC this past fall — and they go out to fancy dinners for fun every so often. Ronnie comes over every Monday night for dinner, and they go to sports games together regularly.

Ronnie’s relationship with Austin and Emily is the perfect example of how a child — now teenager — can thrive when an extra adult (or two!) is championing them. They are his “someone in his corner.” Over the last six years, Ronnie has learned that he can depend on the Walkers; he can always call if he needs anything. Ronnie is currently a freshman in high school, and will continue to be their mentee until he graduates high school in three years and, of course, for many more years in the future.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor at Mercy Street, you can visit their website for more information.

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Story by Hunter Folsom.

Mary Martin