Nick Upton and Mike Heinzman’s friendship goes back a long way. So far back they might have completely lost touch with each other if Susan Bearden hadn’t been a diligent detective – and a lucky one at that.
Bearden, the Special Programs Director for the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department in Richmond, helped to connect Upton, a former juvenile offender, with Heinzman, a volunteer and mentor with the department back in 2002. Upton, now a successful businessman and father, never forgot the mentor who helped him turn his life around. He wanted to find him to thank him. The Rosenberg native started his search by contacting Bearden at her office to help him find answers. But all he could remember was the mentor’s first name: Mike. The only name she had in her computer system was “Mentor Mike.”
Bearden still needed a last name and a phone number.
The psychology major who always wanted to work with kids found out she had a few detective skills, and the Internet and luck also played a part in her research.
“I didn’t know where this Mike could be, but Nick said he remembered that he worked doing fundraising in schools. So I Googled ‘Mike’ and also ‘school fundraising’, and the name Mike Heinzman came up in Sugar Land, with a phone number, and I thought to myself ‘no way,’” said Bearden.
She called, left a message, explained who she was and asked if he volunteered as a mentor in Fort Bend County.
“He called me back within 30 minutes,” Bearden said. “I mentioned there was a juvenile who was looking for him and Mike immediately said ‘Is it Nick?’ and I said ‘yes’. I was just over the moon about reuniting these two. And it was amazing how we did it.”
Bearden has been matching community volunteers with youngsters in the juvenile justice system since 1993. Yet stories of reconnecting with a mentor are so few and far between.
“Mentors sometimes don’t know the impact they are making, and the child who is mentored may not remember a name, but they always say the mentor saved their lives. The kids do move on from the system, but they just don’t think to come back and find their mentor.”
This one did.
Heinzman, now semi-retired, said he originally worked in prison ministry, but started thinking about working with kids.
“I thought, maybe I’d rather work with kids and keep them from going to prison, instead of doing the prison ministry,” he said.
After Heinzman attended training at the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department, caseworkers paired him with Upton, then 15 years old.
“I knew from the very first meeting he was a good kid. He’d been in trouble, but he was a good kid and he wanted a better life, you could tell right away. He was always polite and courteous from the very beginning,” Heinzman said.
Heinzman said consistency is the key to successful mentoring. When Heinzman said he’d come by to talk or visit with Upton, he would.
“You show up. You tell them you’re gonna come by, and you come by. If there’s a problem, you call,” he said. “I think for many of these kids, people have told them something and then not followed through. A big part of being a mentor is showing up and listening and not being judgmental. Showing someone cares and there can be a better life for them.”
Often the two would shoot baskets, grab a bite to eat, or hit a tennis ball. Heinzman is proud to see where Upton is today.
“He’s working in a successful career, with a young son with whom he’s such a great dad to. It’s really nice to see that a cycle has been broken,” Heinzman said.
The cycle was not yet broken when Upton was paired with Heinzman at the center.
“I kept getting into trouble, and violating probation,” said Upton.
Prison – or worse – was looming ahead, which Upton didn’t want.
“Finally, my last probation officer said they were going to set up an interview for me with the mentoring program in Fort Bend County,” he said. “I didn’t have a structured home system, or even have someone I could talk to. I had no structured home system. This sounded like a push in the right direction, and I said yes. I had no other options.”
Initially, Upton said he was hesitant.
“The first few times we met, I was really quiet,” Upton said. “If I needed to talk, he was there. I wouldn’t trust anyone – family, friends – and to open up to a total stranger, it took time. Eventually I realized, ‘hey this is someone I could trust.’”
Soon he was attending Heinzman’s church for services, with Heinzman soon extending an invitation to Upton for a retreat to a Navaho reservation in New Mexico. There would be volunteering in the community there, painting houses and working with children. Upton said the experience “changed my life forever.”
Changing lives is the primary goal of the mentoring program.
“After juveniles agree to try the program, we match them with mentors. Maybe they both are interested in art or sports. We pick up on small things during the interview of both parties and sometimes it’s just randomly pairing people together,” Bearden said.
Sometimes she doesn’t know how it all works out.
“We never know. We try and plant seeds in these juveniles who have just found themselves in a bad position and we never know what’s going to come from that. Mentoring may be the first time an adult shows up at a time they say they will,” she said.
Bearden said mentors have to be 21, pass a background check and do a short training session.
“We require a minimum of one volunteer hour a week. Many do more,” she said. “The kids know the mentors are not coming to lecture them. They know they are volunteering, it’s not because it’s their job – it’s because they care. When the mentor consistently shows up every time each week, walls start coming down and communication starts.”
Both Upton and Heinzman are now volunteering together as a team, mentoring others and giving motivational speeches, such as a recent talk in December with the Detention Center youths. As Upton told the group of students, “…I was sitting exactly where you are, dealt a bad hand in life, didn’t have a role model…”
His mentor was thinking how good it was to be back at being a mentor.
“When Nick contacted me about working together, I took one look at those kids and I knew I had to get back into this program,” he said.
“To hear Nick say what could have happened to him if Mike had not been there for him,” confirmed to Bearden “is what our mentor program is all about.”
For more information about mentoring with the Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation Department and information about the Fort Bend Partnership for Youth, Inc., call 281-633-7317
or visit www.facebook.com/fortbendjpdspecialprograms/.