Second-grader Aldo Fuentes used to be shy, reserved and in dire need of self-esteem.
A year later, he's laughing, beaming and confidently showing off his newly acquired juggling skills to anyone who will watch — thanks to Keith Poelman, dean of LDS Business College and Aldo's mentor.
"It's remarkable the transformation we've seen in him," Poelman said, sitting in the Dual Immersion Academy's playroom for his weekly Wednesday visit with Aldo.
For bringing the boy back into the extroverted world of friends and confidence, the U.S. Dream Academy honored Poelman with its annual Mentor of the Year Award at the academy's yearly gala in Washington, D.C., last Saturday.
The U.S. Dream Academy, a nonprofit charity, sponsors after-school learning centers in Salt Lake City and nine other cities in America. The academies are meant to break the cycle of generational incarceration and poverty by giving at-risk children, such as those with incarcerated parents or a destructive home life, a place to learn and play after school. This includes having a personal mentor.
These children need an adult who wants to care for and educate them in the absence of a parent so their development isn't hindered, said Katrina Muck, director of Salt Lake's U.S. Dream Academy center.
A year ago when Aldo and Poelman first met, the boy was withdrawn and scared easily when the outside world came too close.
Aldo's home life wasn't always supportive, and he had been bullied by other children, said Muck.
His future wasn't looking bright. The center's employees saw a definite need for a caring role model in the child's life, she said.
His teachers aren't enough to fill that void, she said. Children know the difference between mentor figures in their lives who help and nurture because it's their job — such as a teacher — and adults who are volunteering their time and energy because they want to be a part of the child's day.
Poelman didn't do anything remarkable other than give the child reliability.
He showed up every Wednesday for his hour with Aldo. He brought candy each time. And he genuinely wanted to be there each time, Muck said.
"We're buddies, aren't we, Aldo?" Poelman asked as the boy sets up a game of Jenga.
"Yep," he said, returning a smile.
When Poelman returned from the gala in Washington, he brought back a U.S. Dream Academy key chain for Aldo.
The child pulled the box out of his pocket and reverently removed the lid to reveal a silver key chain embroidered with the academy's new logo: a graduate triumphantly holding up a degree. Aldo says he's going to graduate from college one day.
Poelman asked him, "What about high school?"
"That, too," the boy said, shrugging it off like it's no big obstacle.