SALT LAKE CITY — Ten years ago, 14-year-old Jesse Symonette, the youngest of nine kids, had boomeranged from Utah to Maine and back again in just a few years in the midst of his parents' divorce.
Back in Utah, he said his dad gave him "free reign" of the house. He wasn't getting the best grades in school and he got in trouble for things like fighting and sluffing, finding his way into the juvenile court system.
In a telephone interview with the Deseret News, Symonette, now a private in the United States Army 369th Adjutant General Battalion in training at Fort Benning in Georgia, discussed his journey from the court system to military training, and what helped him get there.
He recalls sitting in an auditorium waiting to meet his new mentor through the Village Project, a program sponsored by 3rd District Juvenile Court for at-risk youth.
He didn't want to be there.
As he waited, he asked his buddies what they thought the program would be like. They said it was "cool," you hang out with your mentor one day a week, they try to talk to you about being a contributing member of society and they buy you food, he remembered.
"OK, it'll be fun," he said. And then he saw Siavash "Siv" Ghaffari.
"Siv just, I don't know how to explain it, but he just stuck out like a sore thumb," Symonette said.
"Don't let this guy be my mentor," he recalls thinking. "And sure enough," 10 minutes after the mentors walked in, Symonette learned he'd be mentored by Ghaffari.
"I met him, and I was so pissed. Like all these other guys were getting cool guys," he said.
Ghaffari also recalls his first impression of the 14-year-old.
"He and his dad had come. And I remember he had dreadlocks, he had a skateboard," he said.
Ghaffari — who had immigrated to the U.S. from Iran as a child — signed up for the mentor program in search of a local volunteer opportunity.
The Village Project program — unofficially started by a now-retired judge who often asked attorneys in the area to mentor at-risk youth who came through his courtroom — has been around since 1994 and serves about 40 to 60 youths per year, according to mentor coordinator Alicia Green.
She said boys and girls are usually paired with individual mentors, who meet with them for an hour every week. It's typically a six-month commitment, she said, but can run for as long as a teen remains in the court system. Because of a shortage of male mentors, the program often holds group mentoring activities.
"This is something I can do locally and have an impact on a local level," Ghaffari, who resides in Salt Lake City, remembered.
Symonette says for their first meeting, Ghaffari took him to get food and learned about his family.
During their second meeting, Ghaffari said, "Let me show you what I do for work," and told him about his education and work as a quality control scientist in the biotech industry, according to Symonette.
He told Ghaffari he would never be able to do something like that.
"When I'm failing school, I don't care about school. It's a waste of time," he said.
But his mentor told him: "What you need to find is a trade. Something that makes you 100 percent better than the applicants that they have. And then … you need a personality and you need a goal that you're willing to achieve with their company," Symonette recalled.
They continued meeting every week. Sometimes, Symonette canceled. And he continued getting into trouble.
He was sent to juvenile detention and a strict boys' ranch in Mona, Juab County, leaving Ghaffari questioning his mentoring ability. But he kept showing up.
Symonette says Ghaffari was often the only person who visited him in detention and who made the hour and a half drive to the boys ranch from Salt Lake City.
"None of my family had come to see me. I hadn't talked to them in … maybe four months at this point. But he comes down to see me and I go, 'About time you show up,'" Symonette said.
They both remember the second time Ghaffari visited Symonette at the ranch, finding the teen wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting underneath a tree in a cow's pen — which still had a cow in it — as a punishment for trying to steal frozen pizza and ice cream from the freezer.
Whenever Ghaffari visited, Symonette says, he "kept bringing up the fact that I needed a trade."
And Ghaffari wasn't the only one giving advice. Ghaffari, now married, said the 14-year-old would often give him dating and relationship advice.
"Relationship advice was his knack," Ghaffari said. "He loved giving relationship advice."
When Symonette returned home and started high school, he typically only showed up for drivers' ed and got into trouble again, Jesse said. His probation was extended for another year.
But then he met a Job Corps recruiter and saw an avenue to escape the city and the people around him.
With Ghaffari's help, Symonette says he convinced the judge to let him off probation to join Job Corps, promising her that he would never return to her courtroom if he was released from the court system. She said yes.
He went to Weber Basin Job Corps for a year and a half, where he learned to weld and became certified in wildland firefighting.
But he always hoped to join the military. Now 24 years old, he was able to join last November.
Symonette credits Ghaffari with helping him find his path in life.
"Through the years, it's gone from him being my mentor, to him being more family than I actually had growing up, and it's made more difference than I can tell," he said.
"I'm really lucky and blessed in that sense that I was able to find somebody who would go out of their way continuously. And no matter if I lied, got in trouble … he still stuck with it and still went above and beyond to always show that there's someone there, someone cares."
Ghaffari also called the relationship a lifelong friendship and a "lifelong project."
"You have a good friend at the end of the process … Jesse's a good friend for me. We follow each other's lives … you pick and choose who you want to be a part of that," he said, adding that Jesse was the first and last kid he mentored. He now volunteers at Salt Lake County Animal Services for a few hours every weekend, letting dogs out of the kennel "so they can run around."
He said Symonette helped him see life from a different perspective.
"Some of these kids who are in this program have a tough background. … And you come in with a different perspective," he said.
"And in return, I learn about their perspective and their trials and their sort of challenges that they're faced with that I would've never been exposed to … we're both learning from each other," he said. "I look at the privileged kids in my Sugar House neighborhood and how much wiggle room they have to get out trouble. When it came to Jesse, he had little to no wiggle room."
Of the mentorship program, he said, "It's a very challenging volunteering commitment." However, "you've just gotta show up," Ghaffari explained.2 comments on this story
The mentor coordinator says she's heard stories similar to Jesse's and Ghaffari's over the years from the mentors she's worked with.
And for teens who make it through the program but still struggle, Green says many of them keep in contact with their mentors and know they have someone to turn to.
Anyone interested in volunteering with the program can contact Green by email at [email protected] or by phone at 801-514-1241.
For more information, visit the Utah State Courts website, utcourts.gov/specproj/mentors/village/.