KEARNEY — God’s hand.

That’s how Deb Eickhoff describes her role in TeamMates, a mentoring program launched in 1991 by then-University of Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne and his wife Nancy.

Its premise is simple: Pair one adult with a teenager for three years, have them get together one hour a week at school, and let the magic happen.

In 1999, Eickhoff, program coordinator for the Kearney Public Schools, was asked to launch the program in Kearney. She hesitated.

“I pushed that request around on my desk until two days before it was due. I didn’t know if I could do it. I needed five letters of support from people, like the mayor, the superintendent, clergy, someone on council. I got them,” she said. She had no choice. She got started.

With that, she was off and running and hasn’t slowed down. In the last 20 years, she has found 270 mentors for students from sixth through 11th grades. Girls are paired with women; boys are matched with men. Currently, she has 62 mentors ranging from their 20s to retirees. She’s aiming to get 13 more before August.

“We started with 10 kids we hoped would graduate from high school. Now we talk about our kids going on to college with scholarships,” she said. “But I don’t recruit kids until I have a mentor who can take them. It breaks my heart if I can’t get kids matched.”

Enthusiastic mentors

One veteran TeamMates mentor is Carol Stuhr, who signed up in 2003 when her daughter left for college and left Stuhr floundering. “I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I have more kids?’” she said. When she learned about TeamMates, she picked up the phone. “I thought maybe I could make a difference,” she said.

Stuhr, a retired microbiologist, has done that and more. Her current mentee reads three books a week. When Stuhr suggested that the girl write her own book, she did. “She presented me with the novel that she wrote. She wanted me to be the first person to read it,” Stuhr said.

The mentee will enroll at Central Community College this fall.

“I wondered what little Carol Stuhr can do to possibly make a difference in someone’s life, but if I can help channel a person to graduate and live a happy life, that’s one of the best things I can do,” Stuhr said.

Just listening

George McHargue had no qualms about becoming a mentee because of Osborne’s sterling reputation. McHargue, who is semi-retired from The Buckle, tosses the football and plays card games with his mentee. He goes to the boy’s baseball games, too.

TeamMate Graten Beavers, a retired Buffalo County judge, had volunteered with the Kearney Family YMCA and the University of Nebraska at Kearney, but “this was the opportunity to be involved with someone one on one,” he said.

Beavers admits he doesn’t always grasp the computer games his mentee relishes, but he enjoys learning “and simply listening.” He does a lot of that, he says with a smile.

A couple’s success

Many couples are TeamMates, too, such as retirees Nancy and John Stritt.

Nancy became a Teammate after retiring eight years ago as a teacher at Kearney High School. “I knew I’d miss working with kids,” she said.

She was a rock for one mentee whose father died in an accident and had to suddenly move out of state to live with her grandparents. “She could have been a high-school dropout, but Teammates provided stability for her. The program made a difference,” Nancy said.

Nancy also remains friends with another mentee, now 23, who bounced from relative to relative during her high school years. She called the Stritts “my role models.”

John Stritt has had five mentees since joining the program in 2003. He and his current mentee play cribbage and toss the Frisbee and “just enjoy each other,” he said.

Three-year commitment

Mentors apply online. Starting with a sixth grader, mentors must commit to that student for three years because research shows that’s how much time is needed to fully impact a student’s life, Eickhoff said. Nancy Stritt echoed that: “It takes more than a year to get into a really deep relationship.”

Eickhoff said most mentors stay seven years and see their mentees graduate from high school. “If a mentor leaves, it is usually because of health reasons or a career move,” she said.

Eickhoff does background checks on all applicants. Once approved, mentors undergo a two-hour training.

Then Eickohoff sits down to match mentors and mentees, using a list of children recommended for the program by their fifth-grade teachers. She pores over details, their likes and dislikes, and, finally, her intuition. Only rarely does a match not work out. She is happy to re-match those people.

Once a month, TeamMates adults and youths get together for a meal, an event at the Buffalo County fairgrounds, an evening at the World Theater or bingo.

At Christmas, they hold their primary fundraiser by wrapping gifts for shoppers at Hilltop Mall. Shoppers leave donations, “but even if we didn’t make any money, we’d still wrap the gifts,” Eickhoff said. “The kids love it. They learn so many skills: probabilities, problem solving, social skills, dealing with the public.”

‘A mentor to me as well’

Jaci Pohl, the general manager of J.C. Penney at Hilltop Mall, was encouraged to become a TeamMate mentor by her father, Mel Shoemaker, who taught at Kearney High School. “I never thought of myself as a mentor, but I signed up because I thought, if they think I can do this, maybe I can,” she said.

He was right. Along with her busy job, a husband and 4-year-old twins, Pohl said the one-hour-a-week slips easily into her schedule. “I get to pick the hour,” she said.

She knows she’s made a difference. After graduating from high school, her first mentee told Pohl, “Without your help, I wouldn’t have graduated.”

Pohl’s current mentee is a born leader. “She loves to hear stories about women who work. She’s sort of a mentor to me as well,” Pohl said.

Adam Akerson, corporate controller at The Buckle, became a TeamMate when he moved to Kearney in 2017. His mentee is “gifted spatially” and loves technology, building and electrical projects. “He has a loving family, but it’s gratifying to know that I provide a stable, positive role model in his life. I can be a sounding board, too. They tell you things they might not tell anybody else.”

Time is precious for Akerson; he and his wife expect their third child in August, but “it’s less than one percent of your time,” he said.

Eickhoff hasn’t lost her enthusiasm for TeamMates in the past two decades. “This is the gift of my life,” she said. “A lot happens to kids between the sixth and the 12th grades, and it’s good for kids to have a caring adult to be there for them.

“It’s impossible to prepare mentors for what will happen over that six-year period, but for people who have a heart for mentoring and a heart for kids, it builds on its own,” she said.